US forces regain control of Kut as rebel cleric warns Bush

AMERICAN forces regained control of the southern Iraqi city of Kut seized this week by a rebellious Shi’ite militia as radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, warned America they were now fighting an “entire Iraqi nation.”

In a symbol of the state of Iraq a year after the US invasion, a portrait of al-Sadr whose militia has rebelled across the south was hung yesterday on the statue in Firdous Square in Baghdad, where one year ago yesterday marines toppled a statue of ousted leader Saddam Hussein.

Soldiers imposed a curfew around the square, saying al-Sadr's militia had threatened to bomb nearby sites and warning that anyone seen carrying weapons would be shot. At least two armoured vehicles were positioned in the square.

The felling of Saddam's statue before a cheering crowd of Iraqis on April 9 was an iconic image of liberation in Iraq. US soldiers yesterday climbed the unfinished bronze statue that replaced Saddam's to tear down the poster of al-Sadr, the new enemy of US forces. A mortar round hit a small building near Firdos Square, but no injuries were reported in the attack, which shook two nearby hotels that are home to many foreigners.

In the south, US troops fanned out across Kut, driving out members of al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army militia who seized the city this week. The operation represented a major foray by the American military into the south, where US allies have struggled to deal with the militia's uprising.

The militia still controls the city of Kufa and the central part of Najaf.

Al-Sadr yesterday demanded American forces leave Iraq, saying they now face "a civil revolt."

"I direct my speech to my enemy Bush and I tell him that if your excuse was that you are fighting Saddam, then this thing is past and now you are fighting the entire Iraqi people," al-Sadr said in a Friday prayer sermon, delivered by one of his deputy's in Najaf.

Meanwhile, militants were holding at least six foreign hostages in unknown locations in the country. Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi vowed not to withdraw 530 troops in the south after kidnappers threatened to burn three Japanese captives alive unless the troops leave.

The kidnapping of foreign nationals added a new dimension to the fighting. Fears were growing for British civilian worker Gary Teeley, 37, who disappeared in the southern Iraqi city Nasiriyah on Monday.

Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians staged pro-Iraq rallies yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, calling on Iraqis to rise up against the United States in a holy war.

Following Friday prayers, thousands of protesters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip burned Israeli and US flags and chanted slogans against US President George Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

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