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Powerful Iraqi Cleric Recalibrates Strategy

Abu Zainab al-Garawie, the head of Sadr's office in Diwaniyah, said the newly formed special companies would assert their strength by launching attacks within a month, and possibly by next week.

Several top aides to Sadr said they would not be involved with the new group and said they knew nothing about it. Garawie said the members would have classified names and that some of their military activities might not be publicized.

Mohammad Saeed, 31, commander of a Mahdi Army company in Najaf, said thousands of militia members have been training "inside and outside Iraq." "We believe that now the time has come for these companies to be given the green light to achieve our aims," he said.

Several Mahdi Army fighters, who have been frustrated at the orders of the past year to stop fighting, welcomed the announcement and said they were eager for revenge against the American military and Iraqi forces that they believe have persecuted them.

"From now on, there will be violent unexpected actions that will astonish the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government and even the occupation forces," he said. "Now we will be assigned to fight openly, and we will fight till the last drop of our blood."

Sarhan reported from Najaf.

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