KUFA, Iraq -- A Shiite Muslim cleric whose radical movement was left out of the Governing Council set up by the United States to run Iraq vowed Friday to rally his young followers and form a religious army to drive American troops from Najaf -- the country's holiest Shiite city.
Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr told 50,000 worshipers gathered at the main mosque in this Shiite city that tens of thousands had volunteered and many wanted to take up arms. Coalition officials said that there were complaints from Najaf's residents that al-Sadr followers were smuggling arms into the city.
Al-Sadr, however, insisted he would remain peaceful and forego arming his followers
"To start with, we don't have any arms," al-Sadr told The Associated Press. "Tens of thousands have volunteered and many of them said they wanted arms. Isaid, 'No, I don't want you to be armed now.' We shall only use peaceful means."
He said among the new army's tasks would be to stop what he called the social decay and immorality brought to Iraq by the coalition troops and to counter "alien ideologies."
Al-Sadr has drawn backing among some young Shiites, primarily from the popularity of his late father -- Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a senior Shiite cleric killed along with two of his sons in 1999 by Saddam's regime.
His calls for stricter adherence to Islamic Sharia laws also found resonance among young deprived Shiites in the poorer areas of Iraqi cities.
Officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the formal name of Iraq's U.S.-led occupiers, say al-Sadr has a limited following and that his supporters don't represent the country's Shiite majority. They criticized as irresponsible protests held last week by his followers outside the coalition's Baghdad headquarters and a U.S. military base in Najaf.
On Friday, in the main mosque in Kufa -- near Najaf -- al-Sar spoke to thunderous chants of "Muqtada" and "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great," from the gathered worshippers.
He told the crowd that after his "Imam Army" pushes the Americans out of Najaf and other Iraqi cities, the men will take charge of defending those cities.
He denounced the U.S.-led occupation, accusing it of detaining four to five Shiite clerics every week and of storming religious schools belonging to the al-Hawza al-Ilmiyah, the Shiites' ancient seminary in Najaf. He said such actions and the establishment of what he called the U.S.-led Iraqi army constitute crossing "red lines" and were unacceptable.
"We have only one demand and that is for them to withdraw from Iraq," said al-Sadr, who is believed to be 30. "They are enshrining their occupation by creating the Governing Council," he said, alluding to the 25-member, U.S.-backed interim administration created earlier this month.
The majority of council members are Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population but were harshly oppressed by Saddam's regime. But the Shiites on the body are either secular or moderates.
On Friday, U.S. troops and Iraqi police set up several checkpoints on the 110-mile road from Baghdad to Kufa and Najaf. At one checkpoint, bus passengers were asked to disembark while troops searched their vehicles.