NAJAF, Iraq — As U.S. troops await orders to enter this Islamic holy city, militant Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his militia are strengthening their control here, stockpiling weapons, seizing key religious sites and arresting or detaining those who challenge him.
In the last two weeks, Sadr's followers -- many rushing here from Baghdad, Fallouja and other areas of Iraq -- have fortified their positions in the city and the neighboring town of Kufa, including at Najaf's gold-domed shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most revered mosques in the world.
Sadr's forces have evicted more than 100 rival Shiite clerics and shrine employees, replacing them with their own armed militiamen, who roam the rooftops and courtyards of the shrine with rifles and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers hung over their shoulders.
The cleric's followers also were stockpiling weapons in mosques, schools, graveyards and private houses around the city, according to U.S. intelligence reports and local residents.
The open challenge to the U.S.-led administration in a city seen as sacred to Shiite Muslims, who make up 60% of Iraq's population, has put coalition authorities in a quandary. Two weeks ago, U.S. military officials amassed 2,500 troops on the outskirts of Najaf and declared their intention to restore order to the city and kill or capture Sadr. Last week, they softened their stance, saying they wanted to allow more time to reach a peaceful settlement in Najaf.
But on Sunday, L. Paul Bremer III, the civil administrator of Iraq, called Sadr's growing weapons cache "an explosive situation." Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, deputy commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, said soldiers probably would advance into an area on the edge of Najaf being vacated by withdrawing Spanish troops. He said that although the Americans would not interfere with religious institutions, the move would further squeeze Sadr's forces.
"We're going to drive this guy into the dirt," he said.
A top U.N. official, however, preached caution.
Najaf "has a lot of history," Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, said in an interview broadcast Sunday on ABC's "This Week" news show. "Sending the tanks rolling into a place like this, you know, is not the right thing to do. And I think the Americans know that extremely well now."
U.S. senators also weighed in on the situation Sunday. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) argued on "This Week" that "sometimes there is no substitute for military action," but Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) warned that if troops were to damage Shiite sites during an assault on the city, "you've probably gotten yourself more trouble."
Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), on CNN's "Late Edition," noted that "the destabilization [and] the anger among groups" in Najaf had been predicted in prewar intelligence, but discounted.
"Now we're stuck with the situation," he said. "Being stuck with that situation, we cannot come out losers. So we have to control before we turn over to the Iraqis the government. Therefore, we have to control Najaf also."
Observers fear that even a measured action against Najaf could ignite violence around the country.
"This can be the most brilliant operation in history, but if the Ali shrine goes up in flames, that's all anyone is going to remember," said Phil Kosnett, a State Department official who heads the Najaf office of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Over the weekend, while U.S. troops waited outside Najaf, black-clad militia members could be seen driving around the city in stolen police cars, carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and hand grenades. They crouched in the palm groves outside the city limits, peered from lookouts in second-story windows along the main commercial street and patrolled the bridges, preparing to attack U.S. troops if they entered the city.
Local police officers spoke of their inability to stop the militants, who this month ransacked several police stations, taking guns and vehicles.
"This is all they left us to sit on," said one police officer, sitting on a wobbly, three-legged chair outside the main Najaf police headquarters.
Police officers say they have reached an unspoken agreement with members of the Al Mahdi army, Sadr's militia, to stay out of each other's way.
"We have kept quiet during this crisis," said Fadil Sami, 30, an officer. "With whom are we going to fight? We are all sons of the same society. We don't want any kind of friction with the Al Mahdi army."
The militia fighters, meanwhile, said they were prepared to die if Sadr gave them the order. On Friday, the cleric threatened to resort to suicide attacks if the Americans entered Najaf and Kufa.
"I'm eager to embrace death like a baby is eager to embrace his mother's breast," said Thu Fiqar Hussain, 27, standing outside a Kufa library with a rifle held together with masking tape.
"If the Americans enter Najaf, it will be their cemetery," said Muhammed Abdul Rida, 18, another militia member.