KUFA, Iraq – Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search), wanted on three criminal counts including murder, refused to negotiate his surrender Tuesday.
Al-Iraqia, the coalition authority-sponsored TV station in Baghdad, reported that al-Sadr had left a fortress-like mosque controlled by his al-Mahdi Army (search) militia in the city of Kufa and moved to an even more unassailable site — the tomb of Imam Ali (search), the founder of Shi'a Islam, in the holy city of Najaf.
A top al-Sadr aide, however, said the 30-year-old anti-American cleric was not in Ali's Tomb, which coalition forces would likely not enter, but in his Najaf office nearby.
Asked if al-Sadr would resist U.S. attempts to arrest him, Sheikh Qays al-Khaz'ali said, "God forbid if this happens, al-Sayed [a term of respect for al-Sadr] will win martyrdom."
"My fate will be either assassination or arrest," al-Khaz'ali quoted al-Sadr as saying.
U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer declared al-Sadr an "outlaw" Monday, the morning after the al-Mahdi Army fought coalition troops in the Sadr City (search) slum of Baghdad and outside Najaf in gunbattles that killed 61 people, including eight U.S. soldiers.
"This is one person who's deciding that rather than allowing democracy to flourish, he's going to use force and we just can't let it stand," President Bush said Monday.
Mohammed Ali, an al-Sadr spokesman, said Tuesday that the radical cleric wanted to speak directly to senior or respected members coalition leaders instead of simply surrendering. He added that al-Sadr's supporters would fight to the death rather than allow their leader to be taken by force.
On Tuesday, al-Mahdi Army militiamen clashed with British troops in the southern city of Amarah, and witnesses reported seeing Iraqis killed in the fight. British officials had no immediate comment.
In a statement released Tuesday by his Najaf office, al-Sadr said he had left the Kufa mosque because he feared it would be damaged in an assault.
"I feared that the sanctity of a glorious and esteemed mosque would be violated by scum and evil people," he said. The Americans "will have no qualms to embark on such actions."
Al-Sadr took a defiant tone, saying he was willing to "shed my own blood" for Iraq and denouncing U.S. President George W. Bush, who said Monday that al-Sadr wanted to wreck democracy in Iraq.
"I would like to direct my words to the father of evil, Bush," al-Sadr said. "Who is against democracy? Is it the one who calls for peaceful resistance or the one who bombs people, sheds their blood and leads them away from the leaders under feeble and dirty pretexts?"
An Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant against al-Sadr months ago on charges of involvement in the April 2003 murder of Abdel-Majid al-Khoei (search), who was stabbed to death by a mob outside Ali's Tomb in Najaf soon after returning from exile, and two of al-Khoei's associates, said coalition spokesman Dan Senor. The U.S.-led coalition authority announced the murder warrant on Monday.
The Iraqi judge also issued two additional warrants for al-Sadr's arrest, a legal adviser for the U.S.-led coalition said on condition of anonymity. The second warrant accused him of stealing hundreds of thousands of dinars — the equivalent of hundreds of dollars — donated by worshippers to mosques in Najaf last year.
The third warrant accused al-Sadr of ordering his guards in Najaf four months ago to fire at a taxi as it sped past his home on its way to a hospital with a pregnant woman about to give birth. The woman, her husband and her father were killed and another man in the taxi was wounded
The showdown with al-Sadr threatens to heighten tensions between the U.S. occupation and Iraq's Shiite (search) majority, who have largely avoided anti-U.S. violence — though al-Sadr's popularity among Shiites is limited. U.S. officials appear to be counting on Shiites to shun al-Sadr, seen by many in his community as too young and fiery to lead.
Al-Sadr's main support is among young seminary students and impoverished Shiites, devoted to him because of his anti-U.S. stance and the memory of his father, a religious leader gunned down by suspected agents of Saddam Hussein in 1999.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.