| Shia cleric Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim
Najaf, May 26 (Reuters): A top Iraqi cleric who has been told to disarm his powerful private army kept the Americans guessing today over whether he would comply.
Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim said his militia, which is meant to hand over weapons by June 14, was unarmed but that Iraqis had a right to defend themselves because the Americans were failing to keep the peace.
US forces are struggling to restore law and order six weeks after toppling Saddam Hussein and have said all Iraqis must hand in their arms by next month’s deadline or be punished. Hakim, a leader of Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims who spent 23 years in exile in Iran, controls one of the biggest militias and said he was opposed to the disarmament deadline, but did not say if he would meet it.
“It is a wrong decision,” he said. “I don’t believe coalition forces can achieve law and order, therefore it would have been better if they discussed this issue with Iraqi political forces to cooperate to restore stability and security.” The 66-year-old heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and returned home last month.
Born in the holy city of Najaf, he enjoys widespread respect among the Shia majority in Iraq which was long oppressed by Saddam, from the rival Sunni sect, and is now keen to get its share of power.
“Iraqis should be given the right to defend themselves after the failure of the coalition forces to protect the Iraqi people,” Hakim said in his office in the heart of Najaf.
He said his Iranian-trained Badr Forces who entered Iraq with him came bearing no arms.
“I personally don’t have a position on disarmament and the Badr Forces are unarmed inside Iraq and have no military duties,” he said.
Hakim said earlier this month he wanted his militia integrated into a new Iraqi national army. His aides said yesterday disarming was a “dangerous step” aimed at undermining the force. Members of the Badr Forces, who were trained and armed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, said privately that tens of thousands of their fighters entered Iraq after the war.
US soldier killed
One US soldier was killed and four were wounded in Iraqi ambushes today and, in another incident, US forces seized a brother-in-law of Saddam Hussein, the US military said.
Gunmen fired machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades at a convoy of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment near Haditha, 180 km northwest of Baghdad, a US statement said.
Hours later, an explosion ripped through a US military convoy near Baghdad, wounding three soldiers.
In other action yesterday, US forces detained a brother- in-law of Saddam, identified as Mulhana Hamood Abdul Jabar. He was detained in Tikrit, Saddam’s home town, and had $300,000, eight million dinars ($6,000), three AK-47 assault rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade.
US troops yesterday disarmed the Free Iraq Forces, a 700-strong militia group affiliated to pro-American Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, as part of the drive to impose order.
The disarmament order excludes Peshmerga Kurdish fighters, who battled alongside U.S. forces in the war and would be allowed to retain arms in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq.
Hakim criticised U.S.-led forces, saying people told him that troops were treating them harshly and cruelly and that was developing feelings of animosity and anger.
”If this treatment continues, it's natural that (resistance) groups would develop against the occupation forces,” he said.
He also criticised U.S.-led forces for allowing looting and crime to reach unprecedented levels and for maintaining a power vacuum since Saddam was ousted.
”Disarming society is right but when there is no regime and no state and nobody to establish law and order, it is natural that people should be given the right to defend themselves,” Hakim said.
He said he hoped U.S.-led troops would leave as soon as possible“because occupation is something that is totally rejected by the Iraqi people”.
”We will use all our means to convince the occupation to leave and we believe this is in their interest and in our interest as well,” Hakim said, but added he hoped there would be no reason for armed confrontation.