In a major — if temporary — policy shift, the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said the armed Iraqis have the blessing of the American occupation force.
"The militias ... on the streets of Najaf ... were there with the full authority of the Coalition Provisional Authority and in full cooperation with the coalition forces," Bremer said Saturday at a joint news conference in Baghdad with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
When asked to name which militias had coalition approval, Bremer seemed to backtrack.
"They were not militias. They were members of various groups. There was no one militia," he said.
Yet most of the armed men in Najaf wore black arm bands emblazoned with the word "Badr" — identifying them as members of the Shiite Badr Brigade Militia.
The brigade — the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — was ordered to disarm and disband by U.S. forces 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 took over the leadership of the Supreme Council after his brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, was assassinated in an Aug. 29 car bomb outside the Imam Ali shrine. Between 85 and 125 people were killed.
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Members of the Badr Brigade Militia were spotted on the streets of Najaf shortly after the mosque bombing. Many of them, searching pedestrians around the shrine Saturday, could not speak Arabic, Iraq's predominant language, and spoke Farsi, the language of neighboring Iran. The al-Hakim brothers formed the Supreme Council while they were in exile in Iran during the 1980s.
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-Qobanji, as worshippers chanted, "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 unclear whether his brother will follow that line.
The al-Hakim brothers returned to Iraq shortly after Saddam Hussein fell, calling for patience with the American occupation. Yet there are growing indications Shiites are becoming restless with the continuing violence and may 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.
Najaf residents said hundreds of Iranians flooded into the city after the ayatollah was killed.
"Some came to pay their respects, but others arrived to join the brigade. Clearly the brigade has regrouped and is leading the effort to secure the city," a businessman, who claimed to supply the militiamen with food and weapons, said on condition of anonymity.
Rumsfeld dismissed suggestions by Iraqi leaders that the Najaf attack showed coalition forces had failed to provide adequate security.
"Instead of pointing fingers ... at the security forces of the coalition ... I think it's important for the Iraqi people to step up and take responsibility for their security by providing information" to U.S. forces, Rumsfeld said.
He said it would be a mistake to boost American troop levels in Iraq because it "would increase the number of targets" for terrorists. He also said more U.S. soldiers would sap resources better spent on reconstruction and training Iraqi security forces.
Accompanying Rumsfeld during the secretary's visit to the occupying American forces, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, held to his position that more American troops are not needed.
"There is no risk at the tactical, operational or strategic level," Sanchez said at the same news conference. "The only way we will fail in this country is if we decide to walk away in Iraq and fight the next battle on the war on terrorism in America.
Coalition officials have said that before the Najaf bombing they provided hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles, money for uniforms and training for a 400-strong security force at the request of municipal and religious authorities. The force was supposed to fall under the command of Iraqi police.
However, the militiamen outside the shrine did not appear to be part of that force, with most of them wearing street clothes instead of uniforms.
Sanchez has warned that conflicts between rival religious militias were a looming threat that could require the assistance of additional international troops. He said Thursday the United States was "not turning a blind eye to any militias" and "will take the right action" if necessary.