BAGHDAD, Iraq – Hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims (search) converged on an Iraqi holy city to mark a religious festival Sunday as Shiite radicals seek to challenge the authority of the U.S.-led occupation administration and its Iraqi partners.
Up to one million pilgrims were expected to gather in Karbala to mark the birthday of Mohammed al-Mahdi (search), the last of 12 Shiite leaders who disappeared in the 9th century but who devout Shiites believe will return to rule the world.
The celebrations take place about two weeks before Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and are expected to heighten religious sentiments as radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr (search) is challenging the authority of the U.S.-led coalition and the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, which serves as Iraq's interim leadership.
Last week, al-Sadr followers clashed with the U.S. military in Baghdad's Sadr City, a 2 million-resident slum and Iraq's largest Shiite enclave, where the young cleric holds sway. The battle killed two American soldiers and at least one attacker.
Al-Sadr's newly founded militia -- the Imam al-Mahdi Army -- challenges a U.S. military ban on carrying arms in public without a license.
On Friday, al-Sadr, said to be 30, told worshippers in the town of Kufa, south of Baghdad, that he had formed a rival government and called on Iraqis to express their support for "our new state" through peaceful demonstrations.
"This poses some danger to me personally," he told worshippers about his decision, "but the interest of the public takes precedence. I have formed new ministries for our new state, the state of dignity, pride and freedom."
Such announcements are likely to reinforce the view held by the U.S.-led occupation authorities that al-Sadr remains a source of potential unrest in Iraq -- largely through his appeal to poor Shiites at a time when 60 percent of the country's adult population is unemployed and the U.S.-sponsored plan to restore Iraqi sovereignty is moving slowly.
Al-Sadr's relative youth and lack of religious credentials have limited his appeal in the majority Shiite community, dominated by aging clerics who have avoided a confrontation with the Americans. However, his appeal is strong among young and disadvantaged Shiites at a time when the United States has failed to kickstart the Iraqi economy.
The religious challenge also comes at a time of strains between the Americans and the Iraqi Governing Council over the issue of Turkish troops in the country. Last week, the Turkish Parliament approved a Turkish government request to deploy peacekeepers in Iraq, a moved hailed by Washington which is desperate for help in stabilizing this country after a war the Americans launched in March.
Turkey would become the first major Muslim country to approve sending peacekeeping troops to Iraq without requiring that the United States first turn control over to the United Nations.
But the Iraqi Governing Council, in an internal vote, rejected the Turkish proposal, expressing fears that peacekeepers from neighboring countries could end up interfering in Iraq's internal affairs. Turkey has long battled an ethnic Kurdish insurgency, and Kurds in northern Iraq fear that Turkish troops could turn on them.
Council President Iyad Allawi said differences exist between the 24-member council and the U.S.-led coalition over the issue.
"But both sides also are determined to have more discussions," Allawi said at his first news conference since taking over the council's rotating, one-month presidency on Oct. 1.
During an international conference in Malaysia, the Governing Council sought to get backing for its effort to prevent the deployment of Turkish peacekeepers to its territory. An Iraqi delegate to the meeting of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference said Saturday that Iraq opposes peacekeepers from neighboring countries, including Turkey.
"We don't like to have any peacekeeping troops from neighboring countries, because it might cause problems inside Iraq," Riyadh al-Fadhli said. "The situation now in Iraq is very sensitive. It cannot take more difficulties and more dangerous situations inside Iraq."