Sun, May 16, 2004 - Page 1 News List

US tanks, heavy machine guns make inroads at Najaf

UNDER SIEGE Najaf, the stronghold of radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, came under heavy bombardment in a coalition attack that prompted calls for revenge


American tanks firing shells and heavy machine guns made their deepest incursion yet into this stronghold of a radical cleric. Apparent gunfire slightly damaged one of Shia Islam's holiest shrines, prompting calls for revenge and even suicide attacks.

In response, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militiamen attacked the US-led coalition headquarters in Nasiriyah on Friday, trapping international staff and some Italian journalists inside. Explosions and gunfire rocked Karbala, and al-Sadr's top aides threatened to unleash more attacks across the Shiite south and in Baghdad.

"We will fight and defend the holy shrines until our last breath," al-Sadr said in an interview broadcast late Friday by Al-Arabiya television, widely seen throughout the Middle East. "We are not controlling any holy shrine; we are defending these shrines."

Several large explosions and the roar of high-flying aircraft could be heard in Baghdad before dawn yesterday. The US command issued no statement and the cause of the blasts was unknown.

The fighting around Najaf, the most important center of Shiite theology and scholarship, unnerved the country's Shiite majority, including members who have disavowed al-Sadr and worked with US authorities.

Hamid al-Bayati, spokesman for a mainstream Shiite group represented on the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, called the fighting in Najaf a "big mistake" that could inflame sectarian passions. He urged both sides to mediate an end to the standoff.

At least four Iraqis were killed and 26 wounded on Friday in Najaf, according to Haidar Raheem Naama, a hospital official. He said most were civilians. One coalition soldier was wounded, US officials said.

At least three militiamen also were killed, and their coffins were brought to the Shrine of Imam Ali for family and friends to pray for their souls.

"America is the enemy of God," fighters shouted.

Explosions and heavy machine-gun fire rocked Najaf for hours, and bands of gunmen carrying assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar tubes roamed the city. After a lull, sporadic firing resumed as night fell.

Four holes, each approximately 30cm long and 30cm wide, could be seen on the golden dome of the Imam Ali mosque, burial place of Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and the Shiites' most revered saint.

The mosque, in the middle of Najaf, is about 160km south of Baghdad overlooking the world's largest cemetery.

Militia members blamed the Americans for the damage to the mosque, but Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the chief US military spokesman in Iraq, said al-Sadr's men were probably responsible: "I can just tell you by the looks of where we were firing and where Muqtada's militia was firing, I would put my money that Muqtada caused it."

During the crackdown on al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army, US forces have been careful to avoid damaging shrines for fear of enraging Iraq's Shiite majority. They have attacked mosques where insurgents have set up fighting positions.

At a press conference in Baghdad, Kimmitt pointed to a map of Najaf and said a US convoy might have been fired on from the cemetery as it moved near the shrine. If so, those rounds could have hit the shrine, he said.

Kimmitt accused the militia of using religious sites "much like human shields." He said American forces had not initiated the fighting but were responding to attacks by al-Sadr's gunmen.

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