Cleric hits out at Shiite leaders

Firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr criticised Iraq’s supreme Shiite Muslim authority during his sermon on Friday delivered by an aide in Kufa after clashes erupted between militiamen and United States troops.

Mainstream Shiite leaders, looked to for guidance by most of Iraq’s majority Shiite population, have remained largely silent over fighting between US forces and al-Sadr’s militia in neighbouring Najaf.

“The enemy is entering the city [Najaf] and is shelling it and you are quiet,” said aide Jaber al-Khafaji, who escaped US efforts to arrest him earlier this week, over the loudspeaker at the grand mosque in Kufa.

“The dome of Imam Ali’s mausoleum is hit and you are quiet. Your people are under the boot of the occupier and you are quiet. When are you going to speak up?” said the sermon, al-Sadr’s strongest criticism yet of the Shiite authority.

Khafaji, head of a tribunal set up a year ago by al-Sadr to give religious rulings, earlier announced that the errant cleric would not give his regular sermon in person.

“Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr sends you his greetings, and I am going to read his sermon to you now,” he said as thousands of men raised their fists in the air and screamed al-Sadr’s name.

Addressing US President George Bush, a usual butt of criticism in al-Sadr’s sermons, Khafaji said: “People are being killed and you are riding your bicyle like a child.
Have you no shame? You have dug your tomb with your own hand.”

“The people of Iraq rise up and fight for independence of your country. Don’t believe the lies of the infidels and their agents who tell you that resistance is terror,” he added.

Clashes broke out earlier in the Shiite city despite a truce called 24 hours earlier between al-Sadr’s militia and US forces, a close al-Sadr aide said.

A witness said US tanks had approached the mosque where al-Sadr usually preaches on Friday after making his way under heavy escort of his troops from the nearby holy city of Najaf.

Avoiding any direct reference to the ceasefire, Khafaji reminded worshippers of a truce the prophet Mohammed made with the Jews in the Arabian peninsula.

“He made the truce, but he was determined that if they [the Jews] violated it, he would chop their heads with swords, one after the other,” said Khafaji.

Al-Sadr went on to lambast fighting last Sunday at another Kufa mosque, in which 20 of his militiamen were killed, as a “catastrophe” and a deliberate American attack on a mosque known for its “significance to the Shiites”.

The cleric’s Mehdi Army has been waging a near two-month uprising against the US-led occupation forces in central and southern Iraq, in which hundreds of his supporters have been killed.

The Imam Ali shrine, one of the most sacred sites for Shiite Muslims worldwide, was damaged during the fighting.

Early on Wednesday, US troops arrested Ryad al-Nuri, a key al-Sadr lieutenant and brother-in-law, but were unable to ensnare Khafaji during a simultaneous raid on the sheikh’s house.—Sapa-AFP

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