May 14, 2004
NAJAF, Iraq - American tanks firing shells and heavy machine guns made their deepest incursion yet Friday into this stronghold of a cleric who launched an uprising last month against the U.S.-led coalition.
One of Shia Islam's holiest shrines was slightly damaged by apparent gunfire, prompting calls for revenge and even suicide attacks.
Top aides of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to unleash more attacks across the once-calm Shiite south and in the fetid Shiite slums of slums of Baghdad. One even urged citizens to register for suicide squads, starting Saturday. Gunmen attacked the coalition headquarters in Nasiriyah, trapping international staff inside.
In Baghdad, Hamid al-Bayati, spokesman for a mainstream Shiite group represented on the Iraqi Governing Council, called the fighting in Najaf, the world's greatest center of Shiite theology and scholarship, a "big mistake" that could inflame sectarian passions.
At least four Iraqis were killed and 26 wounded in Friday's clashes, according to an official at the city's main hospital, Haidar Raheem Naama. He said most of the victims were civilians. One coalition soldier was wounded, U.S. officials said without specifying nationality.
At least three militiamen 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 neighborhoods for hours, and bands of gunmen carrying assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar tubes roamed the city of tan-colored buildings. Smoke billowed from blasted buildings. After an afternoon lull, sporadic shelling and machine gun fire resumed as night fell.
Four holes, each approximately 30 centimeters (12 inches) long and 20 centimeters (8 inches) 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 Shiites' most revered saint.
It is located about 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad on a high desert plateau overlooking the world's largest cemetery where Shiites aspire to bury their dead.
Militia members blamed the Americans for the damage, but Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. 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 their crackdown on al-Sadr's militia, U.S. forces have been careful to avoid damage to shrines in Najaf and other holy cities for fear of enraging Iraq's Shiite majority. However, in some areas, they have attacked mosques where insurgents have set up fighting positions.
Explosions and gunfire rocked another Shiite holy city, Karbala, as U.S. soldiers again clashed with al-Sadr's militiamen. Shops were closed, and residents stayed off the streets.
At a news conference in Baghdad, Kimmitt pointed to a map of Najaf and said that a U.S. 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 simply responding to attacks by al-Sadr's gunmen on police stations and U.S. positions.
That did little to assuage the anger of many Shiites in Najaf. By early evening, thousands of them gathered around the Imam Ali shrine to inspect the damage. Some shook their heads in disbelief. Others mumbled prayers.
"The Americans had better leave Iraq after this," said Jassim Mohammed, 22. Another man, Abu Zahraa al-Daraji, 22, added: "The Americans have crossed a red line."
Throughout the Shiite-dominated south, al-Sadr's aides called on their followers to rise up against the U.S.-led coalition. Al-Sadr's representative in Nasiriyah, Sheik Aws al-Khafaji, threatened attacks on coalition forces there, most of whom are Italians.
After his threat, armed men attacked the headquarters in Nasiriyah, firing at least five rocket-propelled grenades within a half hour period near sunset as Italian troops and Filipino security guards fought back.
About 10 coalition staffers, including Italians, Americans and Britons along with 10 drivers and security guards remained trapped in the building along with four Italian journalists, coalition officials said.
In Baghdad, aides urged followers in the Shiite slum Sadr City to travel to Najaf to reinforce the militia there. Al-Sadr's representative in the southern city of Basra, Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli, said he would form suicide squads to carry out attacks against coalition forces and urged residents to register for the squads, starting Saturday.
In the southern city of Amarah, al-Sadr's aide, Farqad al-Mousawi, warned Iraqi police and civil defense corps members that they risked assassination if they helped American soldiers fight the al-Mahdi militia.
Al-Sadr launched an uprising against the U.S.-led coalition last month after U.S. officials announced he was wanted for the April 2003 murder of a moderate cleric in Najaf. He lacks the spiritual stature of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, and his confrontational tactics have exasperated moderate Shiites.
However, he commands the support of thousands of mainly poor, urban Shiites who admire his father, a grand ayatollah who was murdered by Saddam Hussein's agents. The young al-Sadr has also capitalized on growing hostility toward the coalition following revelations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers.
Despite the fighting, al-Sadr delivered a sermon at Friday prayers in Kufa, another holy city that lies nine kilometers (six miles) to the northeast of Najaf, as he has for the past four Fridays.
Al-Sadr described President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as "the heads of tyranny" and accused them of ignoring the suffering of Iraqis in coalition prisons while drawing attention to what he described as the "fabricated" case of Nicholas Berg, an American civilian who was beheaded by militants.
The cleric also condemned Iraqis who cooperate with the Americans and called for an end to sectarian tensions among Iraqis.
In other developments:
- The U.S. Army announced criminal charges, including adultery, maltreatment of detainees and committing indecent acts, against Military Police Cpl. Charles A. Graner in connection with the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. He will be arraigned May 20 but no trial date has been set. Three other military police face charges in the scandal.
- The United States released 293 Iraqi detainees from Abu Ghraib on Friday. The coalition periodically releases prisoners from Abu Ghraib, the notorious Saddam-era jail on the western outskirts of Baghdad. There are more than 3,000 prisoners at the jail.
- A U.S. Marine assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force died of non-hostile causes on Thursday, and the death was under investigation, the U.S. command said. The Marines operate in Anbar province, a region west of Baghdad that includes Fallujah and other former Saddam strongholds where insurgents are active.