Wednesday, December 3, 2003

HILLA, Iraq — Members of a Shi’ite Muslim movement demonstrated outside the local coalition headquarters yesterday to demand that elections be held before a new government and constitution are established.

The protesters held up banners and daubed cement blocks around the headquarters building with slogans such as “Down U.S.A.” and “Death to America.”

“At present, we are in the stage of peaceful negotiations,” said a white-turbaned sheik from the al-Sadr faction, the most hard-line of the three main Shi’ite political movements.

“I pray to Allah that we do not have to move to violence and killing,” he said as he strode with 250 followers toward the heavily protected headquarters on the banks of the Euphrates River.

The rumblings among Shi’ites might presage an end to their sullen cooperation with the coalition, but experts think they are aimed at strengthening the hand of the Shi’ite majority in the future government. Shi’ites almost certainly would dominate any elected legislative body.

In Baghdad yesterday, the coalition announced that U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police had arrested a close aide to a 30-year-old radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Despite his youth, Mr. Sadr has built up a following among the poor and the young, based largely on his anti-American rhetoric and the standing of his assassinated father and uncle. Both Iraqi Islamic leaders were assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen.

Mr. Sadr’s assistant, Amar Yassiri, was detained on suspicion of involvement in an Oct. 12 ambush on U.S. troops in Baghdad in which two soldiers died. He was seized in a joint raid in Thawra City, where he had served as operations chief.

This poor and predominantly Shi’ite district in eastern Baghdad, housing more than 2 million people, once was called Saddam City, but was renamed by some as Sadr City after the tyrant’s fall in April.

Two months ago, Mr. Sadr announced plans to form a rival government but abandoned the idea after drawing little support.

His efforts to take over the two main religious shrines in the holy city of Karbala were repulsed by two other Shi’ite factions — preventing the huge sums of charity money stored inside the mosques from falling into the young cleric’s hands.

Mr. Sadr’s supporters have staged several large anti-U.S. demonstrations in recent months and also occasionally have clashed with U.S. forces.

His faction recently has formed the “Mehdi’s army,” whose men in black shirts hope to rival the armed militia belonging to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a body that is represented on the 25-person Iraqi Governing Council.

Nervous about internecine fighting and jockeying for power, the coalition declared private militias illegal soon after it took over Iraq and called on Iraqi political leaders to disband the groups.

But that approach is being reversed as the death toll of coalition personnel and local pro-coalition Iraqis mounts.

Five factions are to provide troops for a new antiterror force that will hunt down remnants of the Saddam regime as well as hard-line Islamic militants, who so far have been drawn almost entirely from the Sunni branch of Islam.

Numbers quoted yesterday in Washington suggest this antiterror force will number about 1,000 — far fewer than Iraqi leaders say is sensible, but as far as the coalition wishes to go for the present.

The force would be under the joint leadership of the U.S. military and the emerging Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, American officials in Baghdad and Washington said on the condition of anonymity.

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