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Shiite clerics issue warning to U.S. forces

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq - Shiite Muslim clerics in a poor neighborhood of northeast Baghdad said yesterday that the U.S. military had declared war against Islam and warned U.S. forces to stay out of the district, where U.S. troops opened fire on a crowd this week.

Tens of thousands of worshipers carrying religious banners gathered at Friday prayers in the center of the slum, sending a powerful signal about the level of anger in the community over Wednesday's shootout between protesters and troops, which happened after a U.S. helicopter dislodged a religious banner from a tower.

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"America and Zionism have declared war against Islam and its sanctuary. That is why one of their helicopters tried to remove the banner of righteousness," Sheik Abdul-Hadi Darraji told the crowd before prayers. "I call on everybody to condemn this flagrant aggression of this sacred place."

But the clerics sent a mixed message, employing inflammatory rhetoric yet not calling for violent resistance. They warned troops to stay out of the neighborhood but also called on residents to show restraint. Some in the crowd were swathed in white banners with red script, symbolizing readiness to die for their cause.

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Darraji is loyal to Muqtader Sadr, son of a Shiite leader who was killed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1999. Sadr's views on the helicopter incident are seen as a key to whether the issue could become inflamed, leading to further Shiite violence and protests, or whether the community will become calmer. Yesterday, Sadr urged a peaceful stance toward coalition forces.

But Sadr has also called for the formation of an "army," and clerics who spoke yesterday described their plans to patrol the neighborhood's streets in place of U.S. troops.

Shiites and U.S. military officials differ on what happened Wednesday in the Thawra neighborhood, popularly known as Sadr City in honor of Sadr's slain father, Mohammed Saddiq Sadr. People in the neighborhood say a soldier in the helicopter leaned out and cut the banner off the tower. But the military officials say the banner was accidentally dislodged by the helicopter, triggering angry protests below. Troops opened fire, killing one person and wounding four, after members of the crowd fired small arms and a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, the Americans said.

The Americans say the patrol shot the RPG gunner; Shiite leaders say a boy was killed.

The incident illustrates the delicacy of military operations in Iraq and the danger of inflaming local sentiment by upsetting religious or cultural codes. The neighborhood, oppressed under Hussein's regime, was initially supportive of the U.S.-led coalition for its role in toppling the former government, but Sheik Darraji likened coalition forces to the former dictatorship yesterday.

"The Americans, who say they are trying to secure human rights are ... doing things just like Saddam's regime," he said, adding that the situation was "going from bad to worse compared to Saddam's era."

A local U.S. military commander has sent a written apology to religious leaders over the removal of the banner and announced that U.S. forces were scaling back patrols in the neighborhood. Darraji asserted yesterday that the removal of the flag was not accidental but must have been the result of an order issued from military leaders, a viewpoint later echoed by those who attended prayers. He insisted that the apology was inadequate and demanded another from a higher-level military official. He said the Al Mahdi army, the name of the militia recently created by Muqtader Sadr, would take control of security in the area. The group is divided into eight divisions, he said: four to cover Thawra, and four to secure surrounding areas.

U.S. Army Col. Guy Shields said yesterday that the military takes the issue seriously and is investigating. He would not comment on the U.S. response to the clerics' demands, other than to rule out withdrawing from the neighborhood. "We still have a security mission that has to go on in that area," he said.

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There was "no intentional provocation," he added. "Obviously, it was perceived that way, but not intended that way."

A volunteer for the local army, Ammar Abdul Kareem, 32, said U.S. forces should heed the warning not to enter Thawra: "It's banned for them to enter. If they do, we have our special weapons, and we will resist."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.


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