U.S. Marines Seize Center of Najaf, Fighting Rages

by Khaled Farhan

U.S. Marines Seize Center of Najaf, Fighting Rages
   Thu Aug 12, 2004 09:31 AM ET
   By Khaled Farhan

NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. marines backed by tanks and  aircraft
seized the heart of the holy Iraqi city of Najaf on  Thursday in a
major assault on Shi'ite rebels, but they kept  out of a site sacred
to millions of Shi'ites around the world.

Warplanes and Apache helicopters pounded militia positions  in a
cemetery near the Imam Ali Mosque, igniting protests in at  least
two other cities as an uprising that has killed hundreds  across
southern and central Iraq entered its second week.

The assault against the Mehdi Army of radical cleric  Moqtada al-Sadr
nd growing anger among the majority Shi'ite  community could spark
a firestorm for interim Prime Minister  Iyad Allawi should holy sites
be damaged or the death toll  escalate.

Late in the afternoon, U.S. warplanes bombed targets near 
Sadr's house as U.S. marines battled militiamen in the area, 
witnesses said. Black smoke billowed as combatants exchanged 
heavy fire. Sadr's whereabouts were unknown.

Tightening their grip on the city, marines blocked entry to 
the Imam Ali Mosque, one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest sites and
where many militia have holed up.

In the southeastern city of Kut, at least 72 people were  killed
in U.S. air raids and fighting between Iraqi police and  the
Mehdi Army on Thursday, the Health Ministry said.

It said 25 people were killed in clashes in Baghdad and 21 
in other cities in the past 24 hours. There were no immediate 
casualty figures from the Najaf offensive.

Protests broke out in Baghdad, where Shi'ite militiamen 
attacked a police station, and the southern city of Basra after 
the start of the offensive, aimed at crushing the heart of a 
radical Shi'ite Muslim rebellion that has hit seven cities.

The U.S. military said the assault would exclude the Imam 
Ali Mosque. A spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry told CNN 
that Iraqi forces alone would disarm militia holed up inside.

But the Mehdi Army raised the prospect of a bloody battle, 
vowing no surrender and saying Sadr was leading the defense at 
the shrine and vast cemetery, one of the Middle East's largest.

"The morale of the fighters is very high," said Ahmed 
al-Shibani, a senior Sadr spokesman in Najaf.

OIL MARKETS NERVOUS

A threat by Sadr's militia kept a main southern oil export 
pipeline shut on Thursday although crews had repaired it after 
sabotage stopped operations for three days, an official said.

A senior official from Sadr's Mehdi Army, Sheikh Asaad
 al-Basri, had warned that militiamen would blow up pipelines in 
the south if U.S. forces tried to storm their Najaf bases.

Oil prices stayed close to record levels after the threat. 
U.S. light crude rose 12 cents to $44.92 a barrel, just 12 
cents below Tuesday's record of $45.04 for New York crude 
futures.

Militiamen responded to the American assault in Najaf with 
rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs, firing at times 
from inside the walls of the Imam Ali Mosque.

Many civilians fled the center of the southern city, some 
escaping on carts pulled by donkeys.

Analysts warned of a backlash even if the shrine was 
undamaged and the militia beaten in Najaf. They said resentment 
could fester and pose long-term consequences for Allawi.

"This has the potential to be a highly destructive bout of 
fighting," said Gareth Stansfield, a Middle East expert at 
London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

"It's not just the physical damage, it's the symbolism of
the Americans being in Najaf as well that is damaging."

PROTESTS ERUPT

Some 2,000 U.S. servicemen and 1,800 Iraq security men are 
deployed around Najaf, a city of 600,000 about 160 km
(100 miles) south of Baghdad.

The U.S. military said Iraqi forces were actively involved 
in the offensive, although witnesses said American troops were 
doing most of the fighting.

As news of the offensive filtered in, thousands of Shi'ites 
took to the streets in Basra and a Baghdad district to protest.

"Long live Sadr, America and Allawi are infidels," 
thousands of protesters in Basra chanted.

A Reuters photographer said he had seen dozens of dead 
militiamen in civilian houses in Najaf. He said the bodies had 
been taken from the battle zone and covered in ice to preserve 
them before burial. It was unclear when they had been killed.

Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric, who is in London 
undergoing medical treatment, called for the holy city of 
Najaf, his hometown, to be respected, an aide said.

"Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is pained and very sad about what 
is happening in holy Najaf," Murtada al-Kashmiri told Reuters.

Despite the tightening military noose in Najaf, Sadr has 
ordered his men to keep fighting if he is killed or captured. 
The latest fighting has shattered a two-month truce between 
U.S. forces and their most vocal critic in Iraq.

U.S. forces say they have killed 360 Sadr loyalists so far 
in Najaf. Sadr's spokesmen say far fewer have died in what is 
the second rebellion by the militia in four months.

A British soldier was also killed when a roadside bomb 
exploded near his patrol in Basra, the British military said.

(With additional reporting by Nadim Ladki and Waleed 
Ibrahim in Baghdad, Katherine Baldwin in London, Miral Fahmy in 
Dubai)

(c) Copyright Reuters 2004.