Shiite cleric urges armies to leave 2 holy cities

Al-Sistani makes demand of U.S., insurgent forces

Crisis In Iraq


KARBALA, Iraq - The country's most influential cleric called yesterday for the withdrawal of all armies from two holy cities, Karbala and Najaf, in an effort to end days of bloody fighting and preserve the sanctity of Shiite shrines.

The Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, demanded in a statement that "armed forces" must "leave the holy cities and open the way for the police and tribal forces." His remarks were directed at American troops and militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a young rebel cleric who ignited an insurrection against the occupation forces six weeks ago.

Al-Sistani also asked for people to stage peaceful protests in the cities against the fighting.

In a parallel development, two of Washington's strongest allies in Iraq, Italy and Poland, called for the transfer of real authority to the Iraqis on June 30, adding to pressure on the Bush administration.

U.S. troops and rebel Shiite militias have been clashing in cities across southern Iraq, with the fiercest battles occurring in downtown Karbala, where American soldiers are dug in at a mosque once held by the insurgents. On Friday, violence erupted in the sprawling cemetery near the center of Najaf, as U.S. tanks encircled the area to kill militiamen who were firing mortars from among the graves.

The battles have been inching closer to the Shrine of Ali in Najaf and the Shrines of Hussein and Abbas in Karbala, buildings dedicated to the three most revered martyrs of Shiite Islam.

Al-Sistani's statement, issued by his office, was his strongest criticism of the fighting between the Americans and al-Sadr. Though al-Sistani is believed to dislike al-Sadr, and the Americans are relying on him to rein in the radical cleric, the ayatollah noticeably did not single out either side in his statement. The Shiite religious establishment has not condemned al-Sadr, presumably because senior clerics are reluctant to turn on one of their own.

Some clerics have asked al-Sadrto withdraw from the holy cities, but he has not complied, and it is unlikely that he will heed al-Sistani's demands, though he has said he will disarm his militia if the grand ayatollahs demand he do so.

Al-Sadr's influence is based on the popularity of his martyred father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who denounced al-Sistani and other senior clerics for what he called their complacency in the face of Saddam Hussein's oppression.

Yesterday afternoon, occupation officials said they had not received a copy of al-Sistani's statement. "We have to obviously look closely at it," said Dan Senor, a spokesman for the occupation authority.

An American general said in an interview in Karbala that the military would press its campaign against al-Sadr.

"He is going to either have his militia lay down their arms, or we're going to defeat them," said Brig. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, assistant division commander for support in the 1st Armored Division, which is trying to crush al-Sadr's forces in Karbala and Najaf.

Hertling, on an afternoon visit from Baghdad, said there were indications that a steady flow of fighters from outside the cities was bolstering the insurgent Mahdi Army, which is generally made up of Shiite men. The general declined to give more details on the fighters, but field commanders here in Karbala said that members of Saddam Hussein's elite Special Republican Guard, mostly well-trained Sunni Arab warriors, could be joining the insurgent forces here.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 787 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1 last year, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 649 U.S. troops have died.

Latest identifications

Army 2nd Lt. Leonard M. Cowherd, 22, Culpeper, Va.; killed Sunday by sniper fire and a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Karbala; assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, 1st Armored Division; Friedberg, Germany.

Army Spc. Philip I. Spakosky, 25, Browns Mill, N.J.; died Friday of injuries suffered when he was shot Thursday in Karbala; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 37th Armor, 1st Armored Division;, Friedberg, Germany.

Army Pfc. Michael A. Mora, 19, Arroyo Grande, Calif.; killed Friday when his vehicle slid off a road and overturned in Najaf; assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division; Fort Polk, La.

Army Staff Sgt. Rene Ledesma, 34, Abilene, Texas; killed Saturday by an explosive in Baghdad; assigned to the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division; Fort Hood, Texas.

Air Force Senior Airman Pedro I. Espaillat Jr., 20, Colombia, Tenn.; died Saturday of nonhostile injuries in Kirkuk; assigned to the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron; Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.

Army Sgt. Brud J. Cronkrite, 22, Spring Valley, Calif.; died Friday from injuries suffered Thursday in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Karbala; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 37th Armor, 1st Armored Division; Friedberg, Germany.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah E. Savage, 21, Livingston, Tenn.; killed May 12 in fighting in Anbar province; assigned to 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force; Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Army Spc. Jeffrey R. Shaver, 26, Maple Valley, Wash.; killed May 12 by an explosive in Baghdad; assigned to the Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry; Spokane, Wash.

Associated Press

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.