By Fisnik Abrashi
The Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq - The militant Shiite cleric whose uprising last April left hundreds dead pledged Sunday to resist "oppression and occupation" and calling the new interim Iraqi government "illegitimate."
Muqtada al-Sadr made the declaration in a statement distributed by his office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, where his al-Mahdi militia battled American troops until a cease-fire last month.
"We pledge to the Iraqi people and the world to continue resisting oppression and occupation to our last drop of blood," al-Sadr said. "Resistance is a legitimate right and not a crime to be punished."
In other developments:
Iraqi troops thwarted a car bombing outside their regional headquarters northeast of Baghdad, killing an attacker before could detonate his vehicle. Two bystanders also died in the assault in Baqouba.
The fate of Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, a kidnapped U.S. Marine of Lebanese origin, remained unclear. Islamic radical Web sites issued a statement Saturday attributed to the Ansar al-Sunna Army saying he had been beheaded. But on Sunday, the group issued a statement on its own Web site saying the earlier declaration was false.
The denial injected hope into his family's tense wait for news.
"The denial gave us a big relief," Hassoun's brother, Sami, said from the northern city of Tripoli, where some of Hassoun's relatives live.
Before Al-Sadr's Sunday's statement, he had made conciliatory statements to the new government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a fellow Shiite, and members of his movement had suggested they might transform the al-Mahdi Army into a political party. Also, Al-Mahdi fighters accepted cease-fires in most Shiite areas after suffering huge losses at American hands.
However, on Sunday the young cleric said, "There is no truce with the occupier and those who cooperate with it."
"We announce that the current government is illegitimate and illegal," al-Sadr said. "It's generally following the occupation. We demand complete sovereignty and independence by holding honest elections."
On June 12, al-Sadr issued a statement saying he was ready for a dialogue with the new government if it worked to end the U.S. military presence.
It was unclear what prompted his apparent reversal, though he has made contradictory statements before.
On Sunday, Allawi politely but firmly rejected troop offers from Jordan's King Abdullah II, telling ABC's This Week that "we are not asking" for additional soldiers.
The Iraqis are not eager to bring in Arab troops - especially from neighboring countries - fearing it could complicate relations with Syria and Iran, which U.S. and Iraqi officials have alleged have not done enough to control infiltration across their borders.
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