KUFA, Iraq (AP) - Rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr declared U.S. forces can never defeat his Mahdi militia in a defiant speech read out to 2,000 supporters during the first Friday prayers since the end of a brutal three-week standoff with American troops.
Al-Sadr aides said the cleric initially planned to deliver the sermon himself from a makeshift pulpit on the street outside the Kufa mosque, which was closed last week after militants pulled out under the peace accord. But he abandoned the idea amid fears it could raise tensions.
Iraqi security forces sealed off roads and fired warning shots near the city in an effort to keep the jostling crowds in check.
"Many, but not all, think that the American army is invincible. But now it's appeared only truth is invincible," Sheik Jaber al-Khafaji, said in a statement read on al-Sadr's behalf. "America claims to control the world through globalization, but it couldn't do the same with the Mahdi Army."
Last week's accord that ended three weeks of fighting between U.S. forces and al-Sadr militiamen in Kufa's twin city of Najaf gave the interim government control of that city. It also disentangled U.S. forces from bitter street fighting while allowing al-Sadr and his militants to walk away free - and keep their guns.
But al-Sadr portrayed the American withdrawal from Najaf's devastated Old City as a sign of U.S. military weakness. "We should keep in mind the lessons of what happened in Najaf," the cleric's statement said.
The remarks appeared intended to rally al-Sadr's forces. It was not clear whether they signaled a retreat from al-Sadr's commitment to talks between his envoys and the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to stop weeks of clashes in the militant stronghold of Sadr City, a sprawling east Baghdad slum.
The cleric's public statements and subsequent actions have often been at odds. However, nothing in Friday's sermon suggested he was planning to immediately resume hostilities.
Al-Sadr has repeatedly rejected government demands that he disarm his militia, despite promises of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid for Sadr City. Calm returned to the neighborhood since talks began several days ago.
Friday's prayers had to be held on the street after al-Sadr handed over the mosque's keys to the office of Iraq's top Shiite cleric, which immediately shut its doors amid fears it could be reoccupied should fighting flare anew.
A sign pinned to the shrine's door simply said: "Closed for maintenance and cleaning."
On Friday, despite the turnout at the Kufa mosque, dozens of protesters in Najaf chanted slogans denouncing the cleric and blaming him for the destruction. They also demanded al-Sadr and his fighters leave the holy city once and for all, fearful of further unrest.
In the sermon read at Kufa, Al-Sadr also denounced the kidnapping of two French journalists as "inhumane" and added his voice to calls across the Muslim world for their immediate release.
"You should know that such actions are not part of the Iraqi resistance.They tarnish the image of the Iraqi resistance," he said.
Hopes grew that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot would be released after France's foreign minister said he had proof the pair was alive and one of their employers said they had been handed over to another, more moderate group.
In Baghdad, a spokesman for an influential Sunni clerical organization said Friday the hostages' lives were no longer threatened and it was only a matter of time before their release. Chesnot and Malbrunot were last heard from on Aug. 19 as they set off for Najaf. Their Syrian driver also vanished.
Militants waging a violent 16-month insurgency in Iraq have increasingly turned to kidnapping foreigners as part of an effort to drive out coalition forces and contractors.
Also Friday, several shells hit a checkpoint of the "Fallujah Brigade," a force initially created by the United States that has been patrolling the volatile city since April, security and hospital officials said. Four people died and six were wounded.
Capt. Majid Ahmad Salim, the Fallujah Brigade's commander in the southern part of the city, said the fire came from U.S. tanks outside the city. The U.S. military said they had no immediate information on the attack.
In other developments:
- Three Macedonian contractors disappeared in Iraq 10 days ago, a government spokesman in Skopje and their employers said Friday. Iraqi officials have been unable to confirm whether they were kidnapped.
- The U.S. military said two U.S. soldiers were wounded when they were hit by shrapnel when their convoy came under attack while on patrol near the city of Tikrit.
- Gunmen abducted four policemen and an Iranian after raiding their hotel room in the southern city of Basra.
The officers had been escorting the Iranian to the border under a deportation order, a senior Basra police official said on condition of anonymity. The official declined to provide details on why he was being deported, but said it was linked to the unrest in Najaf.