NAJAF, Iraq - Religious leaders of both Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims said Friday Iraqis were becoming increasingly angry at the presence of U.S.-led troops in their country and one warned holy war could be declared in six months.
U.S. forces in Iraq are already facing between 10 and 25 attacks a day, according to the general who led the war that ousted Saddam Hussein.
U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks told U.S. lawmakers Friday American soldiers had noticed assailants were now using weapons such as mortars rather than just small arms and grenades.
In the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, a religious leader of Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslims, said Shi'ites could turn against U.S.-led forces if they were not given political compensation after decades of persecution under Saddam.
"In Iraq, there is a Shi'ite majority but the previous regime treated it as a minority ... . They must be compensated for this persecution," Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Hakim told Reuters in an interview.
The black-turbaned ayatollah, sitting on cushions on the floor of his Najaf residence, said more and more Iraqis were angry over the foreign presence in Iraq.
Shi'ite Muslims, who account for 65 percent of Iraq's 26 million population, largely welcomed the U.S. invasion after years of persecution under Saddam. But Hakim said they may lose their patience if Iraqis are not allowed to take over running the country very soon.
"They gave the justification that they came in the name of liberation but now they are an occupying force. That is what is making people angry," he said. "If the people lose their patience, there will be a social uproar."
A more hard-line message came from a leader of minority Sunni Muslims in the flashpoint town of Falluja, west of Baghdad, where some analysts say anti-U.S. attacks began as revenge for the killings of 15 youthful demonstrators in late April.
Sheikh Abdullah Janabi, a leader of one of Falluja's 46 mosques, urged people there to give U.S. forces six months to finish their mission in the town.
"When this period is finished, the patience of Muslims will run out and jihad (holy struggle) will be declared," he told worshipers at Friday prayers.
Washington hopes the violence will decline if Iraqis feel the occupying powers are transferring authority to local leaders. One key step will be the establishment of a national governing council, expected within days.
The U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has said patience is needed to rebuild the shattered country.
U.S. officers denied Arabic media reports that American soldiers had pulled out of Falluja.
Troops in Falluja pulled out of a police station and the mayor's office but remained in the town, officers and witnesses said. U.S. soldiers in armored vehicles patrolled the town center Friday morning.
Thirty-one U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since President Bush declared major combat over on May 1. U.S. officials blame Saddam loyalists on recent attacks but many Iraqis say the attacks reflect growing discontent with the occupation.
MORTAR, GRENADE ATTACKS
Attackers fired four mortar rounds overnight at a U.S. base in Samarra, around 60 miles north of Baghdad, wounding three soldiers and an Iraqi, the military said.
Thursday evening, a U.S. patrol came under rocket-propelled grenade attack northeast of Baghdad airport and the troops returned fire, a military spokesman said. Two Iraqi civilians were wounded in the crossfire, he added.
U.S. forces have frequently come under fire on the highway leading to the airport.
In Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, attackers fired three mortar rounds at a U.S. military base at around 4:30 a.m., a spokesman said. No one was injured. Witnesses said mortar rounds struck the base again Friday night. There were no reports of casualties.
Bush and his ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, are facing mounting accusations that they exaggerated the threat of alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to justify invading Iraq. No chemical, biological or nuclear weapons have so far been found.
Bush and Blair will meet in Washington on July 17, U.S. officials said Friday.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Ltd