KARBALA, Iraq – A senior Shiite cleric warned Monday that clashes between U.S. troops and the Shiite militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) could create enemies for America -- even after U.S. troops leave Iraq.
"This war has planted a lasting strife in our country," Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi (search) told The Associated Press as he sat cross-legged in a bare room.
"Even if the Americans withdraw from Iraq (search), the Shiites have patience and perseverance," al-Modaresi said, implying that angry relatives would likely hold grudges against the Americans for many years.
Al-Modaresi, who has tried to mediate between the U.S.-run coalition and al-Sadr, said he feared those who suffered at the hands of the Americans during the nearly 2-month-long uprising might try to "harm American and Western interests."
Al-Modaresi, one of Iraq's five Shiite grand ayatollahs (search), spoke as this Shiite holy city 50 miles south of Baghdad was recovering from weeks of fighting, which ended here after al-Sadr's militiamen repositioned from the center of town.
However, clashes persist elsewhere, especially around the holy city of Najaf (search), 50 miles to the south, and its twin city Kufa (search), an al-Sadr stronghold that U.S. forces entered early Sunday, killing about 34 militiamen.
U.S. officials insist they will not negotiate directly with al-Sadr, whom they describe as a thug. The Americans demand that al-Sadr, the son of a grand ayatollah murdered by suspected Saddam Hussein's agents, disband his "illegal" militia.
Al-Sadr launched his uprising after the U.S.-run coalition closed his newspaper, arrested a key aide and announced a warrant charging al-Sadr in the April 2003 assassination of a moderate cleric.
Since then, clashes have erupted throughout the Shiite heartland south of Baghdad. But the Americans have held back from using their overwhelming firepower, fearing an all-out assault might damage some of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines and inflame Shiites around the world.
That al-Sadr's revolt has drawn U.S. forces to within sight of Shiism's holiest shrines in Karbala, Najaf and Kufa has offended many Shiites and may have chipped away at al-Sadr's popularity.
But some Shiite moderates have complained that the hard-line U.S. stand has actually bolstered al-Sadr's prestige, creating tensions within the community that will persist after the Americans transfer power to the Iraqis on June 30.
"Americans can militarily defeat the al-Sadr forces ... but that would be a political defeat for America," al-Modaresi said. "Democracy means cooperating with [political] currents."
The commander of U.S. troops battling the militia, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, has said the coalition hopes Shiite leaders will be able to find a political solution.
However, al-Modaresi criticized what he termed American "stubbornness" in the face of those efforts.
"There was a possibility to contain this group," he said. "I don't know why the coalition forces were stubborn."
A major obstacle cited by al-Modaresei is the American demand that al-Sadr "face justice" in the death of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was hacked to death April 10, 2003, by a mob in Najaf during what was supposed to be a reconciliation meeting as Saddam's regime was collapsing.
Al-Modaresi has supported a proposal to suspend military operations, give al-Sadr a political role and delay legal action against him until a sovereign government takes power. Al-Sadr wants any legal moves delayed until Iraqis elect a government next year.
However, some members al-Sadr's militia, the al-Mahdi Army, insist they are defending Islam and its shrines against American domination -- not just protecting al-Sadr.
"We fight for our holy cities, for our country," said Ali Hussein, an al-Mahdi Army fighter who said he took part in clashes in Karbala. "We are defending a belief."
Although Karbala has quieted, bitterness against the Americans persists among some here, even as militia members used shovels and pushcarts Monday to clear debris from the Mukhaiyam mosque, al-Sadr's local headquarters and the scene of fierce fighting.
Parts of the mosque's outer wall and roof had been knocked down. The inside was littered with bricks and blue tiles with Arabic calligraphy.
Although U.S. officers speak of the militia withdrawing from the city, some of them said they simply set aside their guns and returned to their daily lives in Karbala.
"If the Americans come into the city, we will repeat the battle," said Hussein, the fighter. "The Americans are Jews; they don't honor agreements."
Ahmed Ibrahim, who works at al-Sadr's office, claimed U.S. troops who entered the al-Mokhaiyam mosque during the battles left behind alcohol and "immoral magazines."
"The war of the Americans in Iraq is a war against Islam, not against Muqtada al-Sadr," Ibrahim said. "If they come back, we will just run home and bring our weapons," he said of the Americans.