Troops gird for faceoff in Najaf

U.S. receives permission to oust militia from shrine

Al-Sadr vows fight to the death

Fighting halts pumping of oil to port of Basra

August 10, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The rebel Shiite cleric leading the battle against U.S. Marines in Najaf vowed yesterday to fight "to the last drop of my blood," and American officials said they were prepared to attack the city's sacred mosque in order to crush his militia, setting the stage for a potentially explosive confrontation.

The governor of Najaf has authorized U.S. forces to move against the Imam Ali mosque, the holiest shrine in Shiite Islam, where members of the Shiite militia loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have taken refuge, according to a senior U.S. military official.

Al-Sadr surfaced yesterday at the mosque, his first public appearance since the bloody battles erupted last week, giving a news conference at which he rejected any possibility of a settlement with the U.S. troops closing in on him.

Looking pale but defiant, the youthful cleric told reporters he was prepared to die in defense of the holy city.

"I am going to resist, and I am going to stay in Najaf, and I am going to defend the holy city of Najaf until the last drop of my blood is spilled," he said.

"I am an enemy of America, and America is my enemy until the last judgment day," al-Sadr added.

As he spoke, fierce battles raged in and around the sprawling cemetery adjoining the mosque, where U.S. Marines continued to hunt militia fighters hiding among the tombs and mausoleums.

Huge plumes of black smoke hung in the air, mortar and machine-gun fire echoed through the city, and helicopter gunships circled overhead as the second Shiite insurgency of the year against U.S. forces entered its fifth day.

In a sign of the seriousness of the latest rebellion, clashes between rebels and British troops in the town of Basra in southern Iraq forced Iraqi officials to halt the flow of oil through Iraq's main oil pipeline, news agencies reported.

About 90 percent of Iraq's oil exports flows through the pipeline, and its closing will severely affect Iraq's reconstruction effort, which is partially funded by oil.

A risky step

U.S. and Iraqi officials said a decision has been made that al-Sadr's militia will have to be defeated militarily, even if that means launching an assault on the gold-domed Imam Ali mosque in the heart of the ancient city.

"This determination has not been made by the Americans; it has been made by the government of Iraq," said George Sada, spokesman for interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. "The militia must be finished, because this violence is affecting everything in the country, not only the city of Najaf and the shrines, but the economy, the development and everything else.

"It's not going to be an easy battle, and I feel sorry for the Iraqis who are going to be killed," he said. "But they are criminals, and you can't continue leaving them in the city. They've got to be finished."

Attacking the mosque would be a risky step that could ignite a far wider rebellion among Iraq's majority Shiite community, alienating even moderate Shiites who do not support al-Sadr's radical views.

`A legitimate target'

But U.S. officials said al-Sadr's use of the mosque as a center for military operations may leave them with no choice.

"The Mahdi militia is using the Imam Ali mosque for protection. They are organizing and conducting attacks from the mosque, contrary to the law of armed conflict. It would make this a legitimate target of attack," a senior U.S. military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

As the burial place of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, the mosque is revered by Sunnis and Shiites, but especially by Shiites who regard Ali's offspring as the true heirs to the prophet's legacy.

In deference to religious sensitivities, the U.S. military has steered clear of the mosque ever since troops entered Najaf in April 2003. During the Shiite uprising in the spring, respected Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani warned U.S. forces not to approach the mosque, and the United States complied.

U.S. forces have not attacked the shrine, and they are continuing to observe the exclusion zone around it that was agreed upon during June cease-fire negotiations, said Capt. Carrie Batson, spokeswoman for the Marine force in Najaf.

But al-Sistani, 73, who has helped keep U.S. forces away from Najaf's sacred sites until now, is out of town. He went to London last week for medical treatment, leaving Najaf shortly before the clashes began.

Determined fighters

About 2,000 U.S. Marines supported by about 1,800 Iraqi police and national guard soldiers are battling to drive the lightly armed but determined militia from the city, according to U.S. officials. U.S. military estimates put the number of militia members at about 2,000, but officials acknowledge that they are not sure how big the insurgent force is, or how many of the insurgents are in the mosque.

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