Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Mortar attack kills 74, al-Sistani reaches Najaf

AP AND AFP , KUFA, IRAQ

A mortar barrage slammed into a mosque in Kufa filled with Iraqis preparing to march on the nearby city of Najaf, killing 74 people and wounding 376 the Iraqi health ministry said yesterday, just hours before the nation's top Shiite cleric arrived in Najaf determined to end three weeks of fighting there.

After the mortar attack, unidentified gunmen opened fire from an Iraqi National Guard base on thousands of Shiite Muslim marchers heading to Najaf, killing at least three and wounding 46, witnesses said.

Fierce clashes also continued yesterday in Najaf, just kilometers away, with US warplanes bombing suspected positions of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and explosions booming across the city.

The violence dampened renewed hopes for a rapid resolution to the crisis that has pitted al-Sadr loyalists against a combined US-Iraqi force. The US military and the insurgents both blamed the other for the mortar barrage on Kufa's main mosque.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, 75, returned to Iraq on Wednesday from a trip to London and headed home to Najaf from the southern city of Basra yesterday morning in an armored car traveling in a 30-vehicle convoy.

He arrived in Najaf just before 3pm and went directly to one of his houses in the al-Saad neighborhood, about 1.5km away from the revered Imam Ali Shrine, where the militants were holed up.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi declared a 24-hour cease-fire in Najaf from the time of al-Sistani's arrival "to reinforce our commitment to peace."

Allawi expressed hope al-Sistani's peace initiative would succeed so the government would not have to resort to a long-threatened raid on the shrine.

"I stress that this is the last call for peace and that this is the last chance to put an end to the spilling of innocent blood," Allawi said in a statement. "God willing, our prayers for Iraq's peace and stable security will be met."

Allawi and other government officials have repeatedly issued ultimatums for the militants to capitulate, but have yet to follow through on their threats.

Thousands of chanting supporters ran out to greet al-Sistani's convoy as it passed through the town of Samawah, aides said. The 350km journey from Basra to Najaf could take five hours.

"It seems that there are huge crowds joining the march in every city we pass by," said Hamed al-Khafaf, an al-Sistani assistant.

Al-Sistani -- who wields enormous influence among Shiites -- is calling for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf and leave security to the police and for the Iraqi government to compensate those harmed by the fighting here.

Al-Sistani's aides have called on Iraqi Shiites nationwide to march on Najaf to support his peace bid, but asked them to wait on the edge of the holy city until his arrival. Al-Sadr's aides also asked their followers to join the march as well.

Thousands of people planning to march to Najaf were crowded around the Kufa mosque at the time of the mortar attack and dead bodies lay throughout the compound, witnesses said.

The mosque is an al-Sadr stronghold and the rebel cleric regularly delivers a sermon during Friday prayers there.

"We were gathering outside and inside the mosque preparing to head to Najaf when two mortar shells landed, one inside the mosque and the other on the main gate," said Hani Hashem, bringing an injured friend to the hospital.

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