Al-Sadr orders followers to quit Najaf shrine

by 

Al-Sadr orders followers to quit Najaf shrine
U.S. bombs Fallujah targets; oil facilities hit by insurgents

MSNBC News Services
Updated: 8:02 p.m. ET Aug. 19, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq - Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his fighters Thursday to hand control of a revered Najaf shrine to top Shiite religious authorities, hours after U.S. forces bombed militant positions and Iraq’s prime minister made a “final call” for the cleric’s militia to surrender.

Blasts and gunbattles persisted throughout the day Thursday in the streets of Najaf and at night, at least 30 explosions shook the Old City as a U.S. plane hit militant targets east of the Imam Ali shrine. Earlier, militants bombarded a Najaf police station with mortar rounds, killing seven police and injuring 35 others.

U.S. forces also battled al-Sadr’s supporters in a Baghdad slum, where militants said five fighters and five civilians were killed. Also, late Thursday, an American warplane bombed targets in the Sunni city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad.

Insurgents fired back mortars toward a U.S. base as calls of “God is Great!” and Quranic verses blared from the loudspeakers of Fallujah’s mosques. U.S. forces have routinely bombed targets in the city it says are strongholds of Sunni insurgents believed responsible for violence against coalition troops, Iraqi forces and civilians.

Militants elsewhere in Iraq attacked oil facilities in the north and south, fired mortars at U.S. Embassy offices in the capital, injuring one American, and were vowing to kill a missing Western journalist and a Turkish worker if U.S. forces do not leave the holy city within 48 hours. The authenticity of the tape could not be determined.

‘Martyrdom or victory’
In a speech, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had warned the radical cleric to disarm his forces and withdraw from the shrine after his government threatened to send a massive Iraqi force to root them out.

Defying that ultimatum, al-Sadr sent a telephone text message vowing to seek “martyrdom or victory,” and his jubilant followers inside the shrine danced and chanted.

Later in the day, a top al-Sadr aide said the cleric had ordered his militia to leave the shrine where they have been holed up for two weeks fighting Iraqi and U.S. forces. But in a letter shown by the Arab television station Al-Jazeera, al-Sadr said he would not disband his Al Mahdi Army.

The violence in the holy city between the insurgents and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force has angered many in Iraq’s Shiite majority and proven a major challenge to Allawi’s fledgling interim government as it tries to build credibility and prove it is not a U.S. puppet.

‘Dancing and cheering’
Any raid to oust militants from the Imam Ali shrine — especially one that damaged the holy site — could spark a far larger Shiite uprising. Government accusations that militants have mined the shrine compound and reports that women and children were among those inside could further complicate a raid.

Some of those in the compound were “dancing and cheering,” a CNN journalist reported from inside the shrine, where she was among journalists escorted there with help from the Iraqi government, the U.S. military and al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

“They are all very proud to be in here and seem to be very adamant about staying in here,” CNN reporter Kianne Sadeq said. “They aren’t going anywhere until the fighting is over.”

In the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City — named for the cleric’s late father — U.S. tanks moved throughout the streets and helicopter gunships shot at al-Sadr militants from the skies. The militants claimed five fighters and five civilians were killed.

There was no certainty that the latest offer from al-Sadr to withdraw would be implemented, as both sides appeared to be engaged in brinkmanship.

Thursday’s violence came a day after al-Sadr had accepted an Iraqi delegation’s peace plan for Najaf, demanding he disarm his militia, leave the shrine and turn to politics in exchange for amnesty. But he continued to attach conditions the government rejected, and fighting persisted.

Reiterating his government’s refusal to negotiate with the armed militants, Allawi had called on al-Sadr to personally accept the government’s demands to end the Najaf fighting — not through aides or letters as he has been communicating so far.

“When we hear from him and that he is committed to execute these conditions we will ... give him and his group protection,” the prime minister said in a Baghdad news conference.

Rice calls for action, not just words
In Washington, the Bush administration said al-Sadr needed to match words with deeds. “We have seen many, many times al-Sadr assume or say he is going to accept certain terms and then it turns out not to be the case,” said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Other Muslim countries, including Shiite Iran, have appealed to the Iraqi government to seek a peaceful solution, and the Arab League chief on Thursday called for an immediate end to military operations in Najaf and said Iraqi civilians must be spared.

Secretary-General Amr Moussa received news of artillery “shelling and renewed clashes (in Najaf) with great uneasiness,” Arab League spokesman Hossam Zaki said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press.

An al-Sadr representative in Baghdad, Abdel-Hadi al-Darraji, warned that fighting in Najaf could “ignite a revolution all over Iraq.”

“We welcome any initiative to stop the bloodbath in Najaf,” he told Al-Arabiya television. “Otherwise the battle will move to Baghdad, Amarah, Basra and anywhere in Iraq.”

Oil company offices vandalized
Hoping to undermine efforts to stabilize and rebuild after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, militants have frequently attacked Iraq’s essential oil industry. Al-Sadr fighters on Thursday broke into the headquarters of Iraq’s South Oil Co. near the southern city of Basra and set the company’s warehouses and offices on fire, witnesses said.

A separate attack near the northern city of Kirkuk killed an Iraqi security officer working for the state-run Northern Oil Co. and injured two others, police said.

Attack on Najaf police station
After the attack on a police station, Najaf’s hospital was overflowing with the injured, some of whom were forced to sit on the floor as others lined the halls. Blood pooled on the floor and moans of pain echoed in the corridors.

Some of the survivors looked dazed, their police shirts covered in blood.

Relatives cried and comforted each other; one man slapped his face in grief.

"Why did it happen?" yelled another.

After the attack, a police force raided a local hotel where journalists were staying, saying they suspected some of the reporters helped the attackers locate the police station.

The police station has been the frequent target of attacks from militants loyal to al-Sadr.

Fearful the violence, few civilians ventured out and most stores, some damaged during the fighting, were closed.

Hundreds reportedly killed in clashes
The U.S. military says that continuing clashes have killed hundreds of militants, though the militants deny that. Eight U.S. soldiers and at least 40 Iraqi police have been killed as well.

Speaking earlier Thursday, al-Sadr spokesman Qais al-Khazali blamed the violence on U.S. forces.

"Still they are continuing to shell the city," al-Khazali said. "We will continue to fight if the issue isn't resolved peacefully."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5685031/