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Iraq cleric pledges to keep up resistance

Denies legitimacy of new government

BAGHDAD -- The militant Shi'ite cleric who led an uprising in April that left hundreds dead pledged yesterday to resist ''oppression and occupation" and called the new interim Iraqi government ''illegitimate."

Family hopeful after militant group denies that it killed US Marine corporal. A9.

Moqtada al-Sadr made the declaration in a statement distributed by his office in the holy Shi'ite Muslim city of Najaf, where his Mahdi Army battled American troops until a cease-fire last month.

''We pledge to the Iraqi people and the world to continue resisting oppression and occupation to our last drop of blood," Sadr said. ''Resistance is a legitimate right and not a crime to be punished."

Sadr previously had made conciliatory statements to the new government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a fellow Shi'ite, and members of his movement had suggested they might transform the Mahdi Army into a political party. Also, Mahdi fighters accepted cease-fires in most Shi'ite areas after suffering huge losses at the hands of the Americans.

In his statement yesterday, the cleric said, ''There is no truce with the occupier and those who cooperate with it."

''We announce that the current government is illegitimate and illegal," said Sadr, who is thought to be 30. ''It's generally following the occupation. We demand complete sovereignty and independence by holding honest elections."

On June 12, Sadr issued a statement saying he was ready for a dialogue with the new government if it worked to end the US military presence. It was unclear what prompted his apparent reversal, although Sadr has made contradictory statements in the past. Earlier yesterday, Allawi told ABC's ''This Week" that he had met with Sadr representatives ''who want to try and mediate."

''The position of the government is very clear," Allawi said. ''There is no room for any militias to operate inside Iraq. Anything outside law and order . . . cannot be tolerated."

Meanwhile, violence continued throughout the country yesterday as Iraqi troops foiled a car bombing plot outside their regional headquarters northeast of Baghdad, killing an attacker before he could detonate his vehicle. Two bystanders also died in the assault in Baqubah, the scene of fierce fighting last week between American soldiers and insurgents who tried to seize government buildings and police stations.

Iraqi officials have attributed the wave of vehicle bombings in recent months to foreign fighters and religious extremists. The attacks have led to fears that religious extremists and Saddam Hussein loyalists may be joining forces to fight both the multinational force and the new Iraqi government.

Saboteurs also blew up part of a strategic crude oil pipeline that runs from the country's northern oil fields to the south, police officials said. Fire crews and police from at least three nearby cities worked into the night to extinguish the blaze near Musayyib, about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad. Pipelines in that area have been hit several times in the past few weeks.

Between Baghdad and the restive city of Fallujah, insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at a US convoy of 20 gasoline tankers. No casualties were reported.

In Kirkuk, US and Iraqi forces detained six members of a militant group suspected in a series of assassinations in the north. The men were thought to be members of Ansar Al Islam, a Kurdish group thought to be linked to Al Qaeda, said an Iraqi police colonel, Sarhat Qader.

The New York Times reported today, meanwhile, that recent intelligence reports have led US officials to believe that a network of Hussein's cousins, operating in part from Syria and Jordan, is actively involved in the smuggling of guns, people, and money into Iraq to support the insurgency.

The Times cited the US officials as saying that the operations involve at least three cousins from the Majid family who now live in Syria and in Europe. Among them is Fatiq Suleiman al-Majid, a cousin of Hussein's who fled to Syria from Iraq last spring and may still be living there.

The US officials said American intelligence agents recently detected suspicious movements of money and goods, including the transfer of cash into Syria.

Although Iraq regained sovereignty last Monday, about 160,000 foreign troops, most of them Americans, remain in the country under a UN resolution to help the new government restore security.

Yesterday, Allawi politely but firmly rejected troop offers from King Abdullah II of Jordan, telling ABC's ''This Week" that ''we are not asking" for more soldiers.

The Iraqis are not eager to bring in Arab troops, especially from neighboring countries, fearing such a move could complicate relations with Syria and Iran, which US and Iraqi officials have alleged have not done enough to control infiltration across their borders.

Allawi's government is expected to announce a package of initiatives to combat the insurgency, including limited emergency rule and an amnesty offer.

Allawi's spokesman, Georges Sada, suggested Saturday that guerrillas who fought the Americans before the sovereignty transfer could be eligible because they had taken legitimate acts of resistance.

The deputy prime minister for national security, Barham Saleh, told CNN's ''Late Edition" that he found the comment ''very surprising to have come from a spokesman for the prime minister." But Saleh confirmed that the Cabinet was discussing an amnesty offer.

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