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Cleric seeks to create Islamic republic in Iraq

Iraqi Shiite worshippers crowd a road leading into the holy city of Karbala on Saturday.
Iraqi Shiite worshippers crowd a road leading into the holy city of Karbala on Saturday.

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KARBALA, Iraq (CNN) -- A firebrand Shiite cleric announced he is forming an Islamic state in Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites flooded the streets of the holy city of Karbala Saturday for the birthday of the historic 12th Imam.

Muqtada al-Sadr said during his Friday sermon in nearby Kufa that his government would be in effect beginning at sundown Saturday, the ancient Imam's birthday, and called for "peaceful demonstrations" by those who agree.

But the cleric's announcement does not have any impact on the current administration of Iraq and the U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority, and it is not known how he would set up a government.

In a statement, Sadr said his Islamic government would include ministries of justice, finance, information, culture, endowment, interior, foreign affairs, religious guidance and defense.

"If you agree, you have to show this in peaceful demonstrations expressing your position," his statement said. "And if you do not agree, you are fully free."

"I want to say we want a state that is far from terrorism and occupation whereby the Iraqi people would be hand-in-hand to go out of this injustice into a free Iraq that would keep our and your heads high before the entire world," the statement said.

Shiites were in Karbala for the Imam's birthday -- the first such celebration since the ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who banned Shiite celebrations and persecuted them.

Karbala is the burial place of Imam al-Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who died in battle outside Karbala. The 12th Imam, Muhammed Al-Mahdi, is considered by Shiites to be still living, waiting to reappear before the Day of Judgment.

The U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority did not comment and members of the coalition-appointed Iraq Governing Council dismissed Sadr's declaration.

"This is a free Iraq, this is the new Iraq, this is democratic Iraq," said Moafak al-Rubayi, a council member. "We maintain the freedom for everybody. People can speak anything they like as long as within the law."

Adil Abdel Medhi, spokesman for council member Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, said the council would discuss the development in a special session on Monday.

"The Governing Council is the representative for Iraqis at this stage," he said. "And the Governing Council is the only group authorized to appoint ministers and has done so."

A third council member, Ayad Alawi, noted the growing international recognition the council has received.

"I think there is a body of recognition ... both on the legal and the political side that makes it very difficult to challenge in this way," he said.

Last month, Sadr called for a boycott of the council's Cabinet.

Sadr, the son of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated with two of his sons in Najaf in 1999, recently has appealed to fundamentalist Iranian clerics, notably supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for support. He professes to be the lieutenant of a little-mentioned hard-line cleric, Ayatollah Kazem al-Haieri, who fled from the regime of Saddam Hussein to Iran.

Sadr's main power base, however, is 50 miles north of Karbala in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, which was renamed from Saddam City after the capital's fall. Thousands of his supporters walked the distance to demonstrate in Karbala, which is under the control of the Bulgarian military.

Iraqi's recently created Shrine Police staffed checkpoints outside Karbala, but inside the city, little armed security was evident, and the crowd was peaceful.

At least two Iraqis were wounded in a grenade attack, near the city Saturday, police sources said.

Muqtada al-Sadr is the leader of a militia group known as Mahdi's Army. Some Shiite leaders have suggested that Sadr's group may have been responsible for the death of rival Shiite leader Sayyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei in April, but Sadr and his allies flatly deny the accusation.

Sadr and his supporters have largely boycotted U.S.-led efforts to bring Iraq's varied political and religious groups together.

Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. troops early Saturday detained six people, in three separate raids, suspected of manufacturing improvised explosive devices, according to coalition officials. U.S. forces also confiscated AK-47 assault rifles and one shotgun in the raids.

CNN Baghdad Bureau Chief Jane Arraf, who is in Karbala, contributed to this report.

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