BAGHDAD -- Influential Sunni Muslim clerics who once condemned Iraqi security force members as traitors made a surprise turnaround yesterday and encouraged citizens to join the nascent police and army.
If heeded, the announcement could strengthen the image of the officers and soldiers trying to take over the fight against the Sunni-led insurgency.
Still, it wasn't a full-fledged endorsement. The edict, endorsed by a group of 64 Sunni clerics and scholars, instructed enlistees to refrain from helping foreign troops against their own countrymen.
Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai, a cleric in the Association of Muslim Scholars, read the edict during a sermon at a major Sunni mosque in Baghdad. He said it was necessary for Sunnis to join the security forces to prevent Iraqi police and army from falling into ''the hands of those who have caused chaos, destruction, and violated the sanctities."
It seemed to be a recognition by the Sunni minority, which dominated under former dictator Saddam Hussein, that Iraq's interim government is slowly retaking control of the nation and paving the way for a US withdrawal.
In the central city of Samarra, an explosion yesterday blew away part of a wall on top of a minaret from a 9th-century mosque, scattering rubble on the stairs that spiral up the outside of one of Iraq's most recognized landmarks.
Witnesses said two men climbed the 170-foot-tall minaret, then returned to the ground before the blast. The US military blamed insurgents.
It was unclear why the minaret was targeted. US troops have used it as a sniper position, and last year the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, flew a flag from its peak. Sergeant Brian Thomas, a spokesman for the 42d Infantry Division, said coalition forces no longer use the minaret.
In other developments yesterday:
Outside Samarra, Iraqi and US soldiers exchanged gunfire with insurgents during a raid. Iraqi Major General Rashid Feleih said five insurgents were killed.
In the holy city of Karbala, Shi'ite Muslims packed bus stations to head home after a Shi'ite religious holiday whose participants had been targeted by insurgents. Many pilgrims slept on city streets after Thursday's festival because they feared nighttime attacks on the roads home.
A bomb exploded near a Sunni mosque in the northern city of Kirkuk and killed an Iraqi heading to Friday prayers, police official Sarhad Qader said. Three people were wounded.
Radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led uprisings against the US-led coalition last year, called on his supporters to stage a protest in Baghdad on April 9 to mark the second anniversary of US troops entering the capital.
Sheik Hassan al-Edhari, an official at al-Sadr's Baghdad office, said the protesters will demand that the new government set a timetable for withdrawing foreign troops and for trying Hussein.