BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — U.S. administrators in Iraq declared
a radical Shiite cleric an “outlaw” yesterday and
announced a warrant for his arrest, heightening a confrontation
after battles between his supporters and coalition troops killed at
least 52 Iraqis and nine coalition troops, including eight
Americans.

U.S. officials would not say when they would move to arrest
Muqtada al-Sadr, who is holed up in the main mosque in Kufa, south
of Baghdad, guarded by armed supporters.

U.S. troops surrounded the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad,
poised for a major operation in response to the grisly slaying and
mutilation of four American civilians by insurgents there last
week. A Marine was killed yesterday in the Fallujah area, the
military said, without providing details.

The showdown with al-Sadr threatened to heighten tensions with
Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority at a time when U.S. troops are
burdened by the Sunni guerrillas’ bloody insurgency. But
American officials apparently hope the Shiite public — many
of whom distrust al-Sadr — will not rally around the
cleric.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the potential for violence depended
on “whether (al-Sadr) decides to come peacefully or whether
he decides to come not peacefully. That choice is the choice of Mr.
Muqtada al-Sadr.”

Al-Sadr, a 30-year-old firebrand who frequently denounces the
U.S. occupation in his sermons, vowed to resist.

The Americans “have the money, weapons and huge numbers,
but these things are not going to weaken our will because God is
with us,” he said in a statement sent to the Arab TV station
Al-Jazeera, which provided a copy to The Associated Press.

“We don’t fear death, and martyrdom gives us dignity
from God,” al-Sadr said.

Several hundred of his armed militiamen control Kufa, holding
its police station and blocking a road leading to the main
mosque.

Sheik Abu Mahdi al-Rubaie, a 35-year-old al-Sadr follower at the
mosque, warned that any U.S. move against al-Sadr would be “a
very dangerous thing.”

“They will pay a heavy price. We will not allow them to
enter Kufa … We are ready to lay down our lives for
al-Sayed,” he said, using the Arabic word for
“master” to refer to al-Sadr.

U.S. officials said the warrant against al-Sadr — on
charges of murdering a rival cleric — was issued months ago
by an Iraqi judge and that Iraqis only now want to carry it out.
The crackdown on the opponent of the U.S. administration also comes
as the June 30 deadline approaches for the transfer of power from
the Americans to the Iraqis.

President Bush yesterday portrayed al-Sadr’s removal as a
step toward protecting democracy. “This is one person that is
deciding that rather than allowing democracy to flourish,
he’s going to exercise force,” he told reporters.
“We just can’t let it stand.”

L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, declared
al-Sadr an “outlaw.”

“He is attempting to establish his authority in the place
of the legitimate authority. We will not tolerate this,”
Bremer said.

Sunday’s clashes — sparked by the arrest of an
al-Sadr aide who is also accused in the slaying of rival cleric
Abdel-Majid al-Khoei — were a surprise show of power by
al-Sadr’s militia, the Al-Mahdi Army.

Fighting was particularly fierce in Sadr City, a Shiite
neighborhood in Baghdad, where militiamen ambushed U.S. soldiers,
killing eight and sparking battles that killed 30 Iraqis and
wounded 110 others. It took a column of tanks to restore quiet and
force the militiamen out of police stations they had seized after
police fled.

Outside the city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, firing between
militiamen and Spanish-led coalition troops killed one Salvadoran
soldier and 22 Iraqis on Sunday.

Violence broke out yesterday morning in another Shiite
neighborhood of the capital, al-Shoala, where militiamen clashed
with a U.S. patrol. An American armored vehicle caught fire, and an
Iraqi ran away with a heavy machine gun. A U.S. Apache helicopter
was hit by small arms fire and responded with a barrage of
machine-gun rounds, the U.S. military said.

Militiamen also traded fire with British troops in the southern
cities of Basra and Amarah, sparking fights that killed three
Iraqis, witnesses said.

Gunmen also held sway in the streets of the holy city of Najaf,
prompting police to flee their stations, said the Spanish Defense
Ministry, whose troops control the region. Witnesses said the
police later returned.

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