Moqtada Sadr, the rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric, insisted Friday that the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq had not ended with the recent handover of limited political powers to an interim government, and called on his followers to continue resisting the large presence of foreign troops in the country.
"I want to draw your attention to the fact there was no transferring of authority," said Jabir Khafaji, a top Sadr lieutenant, reading from a letter from the cleric during Friday prayers at a mosque in the southern city of Kufa where Sadr commonly preaches. "What has changed is the name only."
Khafaji also demanded that the new Iraqi government defer to the Shiite religious leadership based in the neighboring holy city of Najaf. He asserted that the Mahdi Army, Sadr's black-clad militia group that was recently decimated in two months of battle with U.S. forces, was "the army of Iraq."
"I ask the Iraqis to keep rejecting the occupation and call for independence," Khafaji said.
Sadr's comments, echoed by another of his top aides in Baghdad, appeared to signal a shift away from the conciliatory calls for unity he made last week after coordinated insurgent attacks killed more than 100 Iraqis. His stance could present an early test for Iraq's unelected government, which is seeking to shore up its legitimacy following Monday's handover of political authority after 15 months of occupation.
Since intensive fighting between U.S. forces and Sadr's militia in several southern cities ended in a cease-fire last month, Sadr has announced plans to form a political party and participate in national elections scheduled for January. More recently, Sadr condemned the foreign influence within Iraq's diffuse insurgency, as ordinary Iraqis continue to account for the bulk of the death toll in urban bombings.
A move now by Sadr's forces would strain Iraq's embryonic security forces and likely require the intervention of some of the 138,000 U.S. soldiers who remain in the country as the chief guarantors of the interim government's stability. U.S. forces are trying to maintain a lower profile in the wake of the handover, but Sadr and simmering trouble spots are testing their ability to do so.
"They are supposed to be reducing their troops," Aws Khafaji, a representative of Sadr's from southern Iraq, said during a sermon before 2,000 worshippers in Baghdad's Sadr City, a downtrodden Shiite neighborhood named for Moqtada Sadr's slain father, a revered ayatollah. "We do not want to break the oars of the interim authority." Later, he called on Ayad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister, to use "faithful, nationalist Iraqi oars and don't use oars that have written on them 'Made in the USA.' "
The U.S. military reported that a Marine was killed in combat Friday and a second died of wounds sustained Thursday in a restive province west of Baghdad that contains the city of Fallujah, the target of several U.S. airstrikes over the past week. On Thursday, one Marine was killed in combat in the same area.
For the first time, Arab countries offered to send troops to join the multinational military force in Iraq, but U.S. officials cautioned that the first two proposals -- from Jordan and Yemen -- were conditional and did not mean either nation would end up dispatching forces.
On Thursday, King Abdullah of Jordan said in an interview with the BBC that it would be "very difficult" to turn down an Iraqi request for help. "My message to the president and prime minister is 'Tell us what you want, tell us how we can help and we have 110 percent support for this,' " he said.
Iraqi officials, however, have long insisted that they do not want troops from neighboring countries deployed in Iraq. The Iraqi government did not comment on the offer Friday.
Yemen announced Friday that it, too, was willing to deploy troops to Iraq, but only if they were members of a force under U.N. control, Yemen's Foreign Ministry told the Associated Press.
In Washington, Yemen's ambassador, Abdulwahab Hajjri, said his country was willing to play "any role" that Iraq and the United Nations wanted it to play. In a telephone interview, Hajjri said Yemen had created a special peacekeeping force with enhanced equipment and training assistance from the United States.
The ambassador said Yemen did not yet have a "confirmed official position" on the conditions for such a deployment. But he noted that "Yemen has always been a great advocate of a strong role for the United Nations with Iraq."
A State Department spokesman, J. Adam Ereli, said: "We certainly commend both countries for their offers of assistance. We've long said that it's important that the international community do what it can to support Iraq as it . . . moves to establish security and democratize."
Insurgents affirmed Friday morning that they would continue striking targets associated with the occupation, firing rockets at hotels housing foreign journalists and U.S. government contractors.
Shortly after 7:30 a.m., a rocket struck the Sheraton Ishtar Hotel in downtown Baghdad, sending debris clattering from the upper floors. The rocket damaged the hotel's 10th floor, but no one was injured. A second rocket hit the nearby Baghdad Hotel, where several people were reportedly wounded.
Moments later, with city streets nearly empty on the Muslim day of worship, a minibus exploded in flames near the hotels in Firdaus Square, where U.S. troops pulled down a statue of former president Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003. There were conflicting reports regarding the attack, but U.S. and Iraqi officials eventually said the bus had been used to fire the rockets and tipped over from the force of the launch, detonating more weapons inside.
U.S. officials said the insurgents' target may have been the Green Zone, the heavily fortified compound that houses the U.S. Embassy, across the Tigris River from the hotels. Two other rocket attacks occurred later in the day, one near another hotel used by foreigners and the other near the headquarters of an Islamic party, where a guard was reportedly wounded.
Also Friday, two Turkish civilians who had been missing for more than a month were freed by insurgents. The hostages -- an air-conditioner repairman and his assistant -- were released after their company agreed to stop doing business in Iraq. A Pakistani driver was also released, Iraqi officials said.
There was also evidence that Iraqis were coming together behind their new interim government.
At the Mother of All Villages Mosque in Baghdad, Sheik Ahmad Abdul Ghafoor called on nearly 2,000 worshippers to "close ranks and unite, because in unity there is strength and in division weakness." Ghafoor, who leads the Sunni Muslim mosque, warned that the months between now and January, when Iraqis are to elect a transitional government, will be difficult ones.
"This will be a test period," he said. "These months will end, but good deeds and patriotic fervor shall remain far longer."
Staff writers Robin Wright and William Branigin in Washington and special correspondents Khalid Saffar and Hoda Lazim in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Kufa contributed to this report.