Militant group's hold on Najaf site seems to weaken

False reports create widespread confusion on who controls mosque

August 21, 2004|By Edmund Sanders and Henry Chu | Edmund Sanders and Henry Chu,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAJAF, Iraq - Rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's grip on the sacred Imam Ali Mosque appeared less certain late yesterday after a chaotic day in which some of his fighters were captured attempting to flee the holy city and his representatives vowed to remove weapons from the shrine.

Earlier in the day, Iraqi government officials had reported - erroneously - that al-Sadr's forces had been kicked out of the shrine. But last evening, al-Sadr's militia still maintained control over the mosque, although his spokesman said there were negotiations under way to hand control over to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric.

Aides to Sistani, who is in London recovering from a heart procedure, said they would accept al-Sadr's offer on condition that all of al-Sadr's men left, all the mosque's doors were locked and all its contents inventoried.

Early last evening, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and his defense minister prepared to fly to Najaf. But the trip abruptly was called off when officials discovered that reports that Iraqi police had taken control of the mosque were false.

Najaf Gov. Adnan Zurfi said in an interview that those reports - which were circulated by the Iraqi Interior Ministry - were premature. He said police had planned to raid and recapture the mosque yesterday but were unable to obtain final approval from government officials in Baghdad, the capital.

Allawi appeared to adopt a more conciliatory approach yesterday than he had the previous day, saying in a radio interview with the BBC that he did not intend to raid the mosque. On Thursday night, Allawi had issued what he termed a "final call" to al-Sadr and his Mahdi militia to leave the mosque and lay down their weapons.

U.S. military and other officials took the developments as a sign that al-Sadr might be ready to end the two-week-old standoff.

"It's a signal that they're breaking, that there's a fissure," said one military official in Najaf.

"My sense is there's a splintering [within the al-Sadr camp]," a Western diplomat in Baghdad said earlier, citing reports of possible infighting between hard-line and more dovish advisers surrounding the cleric.

Throughout the crisis, the fiery al-Sadr has sent mixed signals, declaring through his many aides a desire for negotiations and peace while simultaneously denouncing the government and vowing to fight to the death.

Yesterday, Iraqi police said they caught 50 al-Sadr militiamen who were attempting to leave Najaf's Old City, where the gold-domed shrine is located. "They are fleeing the city," Zurfi said.

Al-Sadr's latest offer to quit the Imam Ali Mosque - one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam - followed heavy U.S. bombing Thursday night of Mahdi strongholds around the Old City.

The Iraqi Ministry of Health said 77 people were killed and 70 injured in the 24-hour period through early last evening. It was not known how many of the dead were civilians and how many were combatants.

Through most of yesterday, it was also unclear who controlled the shrine, which has become the focal point of the violent confrontation that broke out Aug. 5. A bewildering jumble of conflicting reports piled up out of Najaf and Baghdad throughout the late afternoon and evening, sowing confusion among both Iraqi and U.S. officials.

At 5:30 p.m. in Baghdad, someone from the Iraqi Interior Ministry announced that the mosque was "completely under the control of the Iraqi police," without a single shot having been fired. Yet minutes later, Najaf's police chief told reporters that he was waiting for the Iraqi Defense Ministry to issue a plan for invading the shrine.

An al-Sadr spokesman inside the mosque denied the presence of any police but said Mahdi fighters were preparing to pull out. "We are emptying the shrine and getting started on the next step, which is handing over the keys to the shrine to Ayatollah Ali Sistani's office," said Ahmed Shaibani. "The situation is not terribly clear now," Mouwafak Rabii, Allawi's national security adviser, told CNN.

Even U.S. military leaders, whose more than 5,000 troops in the area have been conducting constant surveillance and maintaining a loose cordon around the Old City, were unsure of who was in charge of the shrine, located less than two miles from one of their bases.

Marine and Army officers, who have spent the past several days with Iraqi officials discussing possible joint operations to evict al-Sadr from the mosque, sat stunned as they listened to television reports that Iraqi police had moved independently and seized the mosque. Intelligence officers scrambled to verify the information.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 949 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, 811 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identifications

Army Spc. Jacob D. Martir, 21, Norwich, Conn.; died Wednesday in Sadr City when his patrol came under fire; assigned to 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.

Marine Lance Cpl. Caleb J. Powers, 21, Manfield, Wash.; killed Tuesday in Anbar province; assigned to 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Marine Lance Cpl. Dustin R. Fitzgerald, 22, Huber Heights, Ohio; died Wednesday in a nonhostile vehicle incident in Anbar province; assigned to Battalion Landing Team 1/2, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Marine Sgt. Harvey E. Parkerson III, 27, Yuba City, Calif.; killed Wednesday in Anbar province; assigned to Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Associated Press

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