Iraq to damage shrines, blame U.S., Blair says

Officials worry Hussein will undermine campaign to win civilians' support

War in Iraq

April 03, 2003|By BLOOMBERG

LONDON - Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is planning to damage the country's Islamic shrines and blame coalition forces, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

U.S. forces have been engaged in fighting on the outskirts of Najaf and Karbala, both holy cities in Shiite Islam.

Karbala is the resting site of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Hussein.

"The Iraqi regime intends to damage the Iraqi holy sites with a view to blaming the coalition," Blair told Parliament.

"We are doing everything we can to protect the holy sites," he said.

As Blair was speaking, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed al-Sahaf told a news conference in Baghdad that allied forces have shelled mosques and other holy sites in Karbala and Najaf.

The allies are fighting a "hearts and minds" operation to win the support of the Iraqi people and neighboring Muslim countries.

British officials are concerned that Hussein will undermine that campaign by blaming civilian deaths and damage to buildings and infrastructure on the U.S.-led forces.

The war to oust Hussein, secure the country's oil fields and destroy any banned weapons is now in its 14th day.

Allied forces also are fighting Iraqi units in the southern cities of Najaf, Nasiriyah and Basra.

The coalition has halted Iraqi operations in the west and is preparing an advance on Baghdad from the north, the U.S. military command said.

Blair said progress meant he doesn't see the need to follow the United States in sending more troops to Iraq.

"We don't believe at the present time that we need additional troops," Blair said, adding that he kept the situation "under review."

Still, there has been no large-scale Iraqi revolt against the regime, as planners had hoped.

The United States and Britain attribute this to regime coercion and fear.

Young people in Basra were being "shot in front of their parents" for refusing to fight, Blair told Parliament, citing "reports" he had received.

On the debate over the United Nations' role in postwar Iraq, Blair said: "It is a matter of agreement on both sides of the Atlantic that any interim government has to be U.N.-endorsed."

He added that cooperation over a postwar settlement for Iraq could be "a way to bring the international community back together again."

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