NAJAF, Iraq – An Islamic militia disbanded by the United States has emerged with weapons and in uniform in Iraq's holiest Shiite Muslim city, a sign Najaf could become a new flash point in the aftermath of a key cleric's assassination.
But the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said Saturday the armed men were in Najaf "with the full cooperation of the Coalition Provisional Authority and in full cooperation with the coalition forces."
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld continued his inspection tour of the country, traveling to the ancient city of Babylon and visiting a nearby mass grave.
The Badr Brigade (search) — the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — was disarmed on U.S. orders shortly after the fall of Baghdad five months ago. Its defiant reappearance takes on particular significance because its new leader also sits on the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council.
Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim (search) took over the leadership of the Supreme Council after his brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, was killed in a massive car bombing of the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf.
Shortly after the Aug. 29 bombing, which killed between 85 and 125 people, armed men wearing Badr armbands have been seen in the streets of Najaf and Karbala, another sacred city for Shiites.
But Bremer said Saturday the men on Najaf's streets were not members of one group, but rather belonged to several different groups.
"They are there temporarily to assist in the security of the holy sites at the request of both the secular and clerical authorities in Najaf," Bremer said during a news conference.
At Friday prayers, a deputy of the slain cleric told an overflow crowd of more than 15,000 people at the shrine to support the Badr Brigade.
"The Badr Brigade must continue to exist and thrive. They must be supported and recognized," said the imam, Sadreddine al-Qobanjial-Qobanji, to chants of "We are all Badr Brigade."
The slain ayatollah was a moderating influence among the Shiites, most of whom do not act on major issues without direction from spiritual leaders. It is not clear whether his brother will follow that moderate line, though Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim has said he plans to continue working on the Governing Council (search), over which Americans hold a veto.
The Supreme Council was formed in Iran during the al-Hakim brothers' exile after they ran afoul of then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s. They returned shortly after Saddam fell and assumed moderating political and spiritual roles among their Shiite followers in the broad swath of territory south of Baghdad to the Kuwait border.
While the al-Hakim brothers called for patience with the American occupation, there are growing indications Shiites are becoming restless with the continuing violence in the country and may be ready to take matters into their own hands.
The Shiites, the majority of Iraq's 25 million people, were long oppressed under Saddam's Sunni-led regime.
On Friday, Bremer told the Iraqis in his weekly broadcast that the United States does not like being an occupying power and will leave when Iraqis have their own elected government.
"You must have a government which governs for your benefit and which derives from your will," Bremer said. "But to elect a government without a permanent constitution is to elect a Pharaoh, someone who, once elected, would have no limits on his power."
Bremer outlined a several-step process involving the drafting and approval of a new constitution that will culminate in Iraqi self-government. But he stressed that he did not know how long it would take.
He also appealed to the Iraqi people to help the Governing Council, the Iraqi police and coalition forces identify and arrest saboteurs and terrorists trying to disrupt the path to democracy.
"These criminals will not succeed, but their campaigns of murder, sabotage and destruction can slow this process," he warned.
In his remarks, Bremer said the next step toward Iraqi self-government would be recommendations by a committee of the Governing Council on a process for writing the constitution.
Iraqis he promised, will eventually vote only on whether to accept the constitution and will then elect their leaders.
"Once Iraq has a freely elected government the Coalition will happily yield the remainder of its authority to that sovereign Iraqi government," Bremer said. "The Coalition will then have fulfilled its obligations to the Iraqi people and to posterity."
On Saturday, the U.S. Central Command said the 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had completed several weeks of raids in the Fallujah region west of Baghdad.
The report said the forces made huge weapons hauls, including more than 10,000 artillery and mortar rounds and nearly two dozen missiles.