U.S. troops battle rebels in holy city

shrine is damaged

More than 300 detainees released from Abu Ghraib

May 15, 2004|By Deborah Horan and Bill Glauber | Deborah Horan and Bill Glauber,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD - U.S. tanks rolled into Iraq's holiest Islamic city yesterday as troops pounded positions held by militiamen loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. A major Muslim shrine was damaged in the fighting, prompting calls for revenge and suicide attacks on American targets.

The fighting in Najaf flared as U.S. military commanders released more than 300 Iraqi detainees from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, and authorities announced they had filed criminal charges against a fourth U.S. guard allegedly involved in abusing prisoners there.

At least 10 Iraqis died in battles that rang out for hours in central Najaf and in the city's main cemetery, where al-Sadr's al-Mahdi militia hid among footpaths and tombstones to fight U.S. tanks firing shells and heavy machine guns. Bullets struck the Imam Ali Mosque, the holiest Iraqi shrine, leaving four gaping holes.

The battles erupted as Iraqi's foremost Shiite voice of moderation, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for both U.S. troops and al-Sadr's militia to leave the embattled city, Arab television stations reported, quoting one of the ayatollah's aides. Moderate Shiites have warned against fighting in the holy city for fear of damaging shrines where revered Islamic saints are buried.

It was unclear yesterday which side had hit the shrine. Since the fighting began in Najaf, U.S. troops have taken care not to damage the city's holy sites to avoid enraging the local population, U.S. military commanders have said.

At a news conference yesterday evening, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt denied U.S. soldiers had hit the holy site. American troops, he said, were fired upon from the cemetery "from north to south."

"I haven't seen it, but if there is a hole in that shrine, go ask Moqtada who put that hole in the shrine," Kimmitt said. "I suspect that he will tell you that it was coalition forces. But I suspect if you look very carefully, the coalition does not yet have ammunition that can shoot to the north and then turn around and head south."

Clashes also erupted in the holy city of Karbala near the Shrine of Hussein and the Shrine of Abbas as insurgents battling U.S. troops fired rocket-propelled grenades and U.S. helicopters circled overhead.

In Nasiriyah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, armed men responding to a call by al-Sadr attacked coalition headquarters, the Associated Press reported. They fired at least five rocket-propelled grenades as Italian troops and Filipino security guards fought back.

In Baghdad, Abdel Hadi Al-Darraji, an aide to al-Sadr and an imam at a mosque in a sprawling Shiite slum called Sadr City, called on volunteers to go to Najaf "to support your brothers there."

In his sermon yesterday, al-Sadr, a 31-year-old junior cleric wanted by U.S. authorities in connection with the murder of a rival cleric last year, described President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the "heads of tyranny."

He said Bush and Blair had focused too much attention on Nicholas Berg, an independent businessman from Pennsylvania who was beheaded by masked militants, and not enough attention to abuses committed against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

At Abu Graib, meanwhile, about 300 Iraqi prisoners, some weeping for joy, packed into buses and headed for western Baghdad where tribal leaders awaited some of them. Hundreds of relatives stood outside the prison waiting for the early morning release a day after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to the prison.

The release, part of a plan to reduce by half the number of inmates at the prison, came as criminal proceedings continued against seven guards accused of forcing prisoners into humiliating and terrifying positions.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, the U.S. governor of Iraqi told regional officials that the United States would leave Iraq if requested to do so by the new Iraqi government - although he thinks such a move is unlikely.

L. Paul Bremer III told a delegation from Iraq's Diyala province that American forces would not stay where they were unwelcome. "If the provisional government asks us to leave, we will leave," Bremer said, referring to an Iraqi administration due to take power June 30. "I don't think that will happen, but obviously we don't stay in countries where we're not welcome."

The United States plans to keep substantial military forces here after the June 30 handover, prompting critics to question whether Iraqis will gain genuine sovereignty.

American officials have said that the terms of the U.S. military role will ultimately be determined by a status of forces agreement to be signed with the new Iraqi government.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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