Fugitive cleric finds refuge in Kufa

Under his control, city is well-armed for battle


KUFA, Iraq - The Grand Mosque of Kufa has now become the grand arsenal.

Yesterday, as U.S. authorities issued an arrest warrant for Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric who set off the most serious insurrection against the occupation forces, hundreds of his supporters were busy fortifying the mosque with heavy weapons, bracing for a U.S. invasion.

Al-Sadr has barricaded himself inside the golden brick walls, refusing to surrender. His militia is prowling the streets, staring down the sights of machine guns, building fighting positions in and around the mosque, the town's biggest, and pointing rocket-propelled grenades at the highway heading north - the road they expect to see U.S. forces come rumbling down.

"The only way the Americans will enter this city is entering over our bodies," said Sheik Abu Mahdi Al Rubayee, a commander in al-Sadr's private army, estimated to number in the tens of thousands. "If they come for our leader, they will ignite all of Iraq."

Kufa, a sandy, palm-lined town along the banks of the Euphrates River, is a picture of what might lie ahead if Iraqi security forces are unable to quell potential insurrections. On Sunday, as part of the uprising orchestrated by al-Sadr, hundreds of militiamen took over Kufa, driving out Iraqi security forces.

Yesterday, blue-and-white Iraqi police trucks cruised the streets. But at the wheels were bearded, black-clad men loyal to al-Sadr. The police stations and government offices are now occupied by al-Sadr's agents, who enforce an austere version of Islam and have even set up their own religious courts and prisons. The town is basically an occupation-free zone.

"The occupation is ending," vowed Said Sadduck, a 26-year-old disciple of al-Sadr. "This is just the beginning."

U.S. officials, who have accused al-Sadr of inciting violence and unleashing his band of armed followers against U.S. troops, have said they will capture al-Sadr when they are ready.

"There will be no warning," said Dan Senor, a senior spokesman for occupation authorities.

Many Kufa residents are dreading a showdown. The streets are full of militiamen, in open disregard of occupation laws calling for private armies to be disbanded. At a kebab stand in front of the grand mosque, a man winced as truckloads of armed young men whizzed past.

"This is bad," said Adil Sahab, a doctor's assistant. "Look at how idle these boys are. Trouble is coming. Can't you feel it?"

Kufa, population 110,000 and 100 miles south of Baghdad, is the first Iraqi city to spin entirely out of occupation control. The town is a stronghold of conservative Shiite beliefs.

For years, it has been the power base of the al-Sadr family, a learned band of Shiite clerics. Al-Sadr's father, a famous ayatollah, was killed in 1999, along with al-Sadr's two older brothers. That left Muqtada, now 31, the leader of the family.

Though al-Sadr is not an ayatollah, he has a devoted following. Part of his appeal is his youth. The other part is his militancy. Other Shiite clerics have pressed for moderation.

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