Militia retains control of Najaf shrine

Mahdi Army, U.S. forces renew fighting at mosque as standoff reaches day 18

August 22, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Renewed clashes erupted around the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf yesterday as yet another opportunity to end the bloody confrontation between rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S. forces appeared to pass.

Al-Sadr's militia remained firmly in control of the gold-domed mosque compound in Najaf and showed no sign that it was preparing to leave, witnesses said.

A flurry of activity the previous day had suggested that the fighters were about to hand over control of the shrine to local religious authorities.

A spokesman for al-Sadr told reporters that the Mahdi Army was willing to turn over the keys to representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior and respected Shiite leader, who is in London receiving medical treatment.

But, Ahmad al-Shaibani added, the Mahdi Army would retain "custody" of the shrine and would continue to guard it, in contravention of the government's insistence that the militia disarm and disband.

An official with al-Sistani's office in Baghdad said al-Sistani would accept the keys only if al-Sadr's followers agreed to leave the shrine and give up their weapons first. No such assurance has been given, he said.

On Friday, in an embarrassment to the government, the Interior Ministry announced that Iraqi police had taken over the shrine and detained 400 militiamen. News later emerged that no such operation had taken place.

A new dispute erupted over the contents of the shrine, which houses many ancient and priceless relics. Al-Sadr's officials said they did not want to be accused of stealing and invited al-Sistani's representatives to inspect the shrine.

But as long as there are weapons in the shrine, al-Sistani's representatives said, they would not approach the blue-tiled complex, which houses the mosque and the tomb of Imam Ali, the fourth Islamic caliph and the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.

There was still no word on the whereabouts of al-Sadr, who has not been seen in public for more than a week. He has not responded to a government appeal that he appear on television to confirm his acceptance of a three-point plan proposed by Iraq's national conference last week.

Visitors to Najaf said the streets were deserted, apart from the occasional Iraqi police patrol. There were sporadic exchanges of machine gun and mortar fire throughout the day, but the clashes were not as intense as on many previous occasions during the 18-day standoff.

Marine Capt. Carrie Batson said U.S. troops came under mortar attack in the Old City and destroyed two of the militants' mortar positions with gunfire and an Apache helicopter attack.

The fighting died down after about 45 minutes, returning the city to relative calm.

The standoff has frustrated many in Najaf, who have suffered outages in their water and electricity, whose streets have been rocked by explosions and who have seen scores of their neighbors killed since the fighting started Aug. 5.

"All parties are stalling," said Saeed Mohammed, 41. "There has been no change, only more shelling and clashes that have hurt the city even more."

There were also clashes between U.S. forces and militiamen in the nearby town of Kufa, another Mahdi Army stronghold, witnesses said.

In other violence, a U.S. soldier was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at his military vehicle in Baghdad, the military said. Two other soldiers were wounded. Including the latest death, the U.S. military death toll in Iraq since the beginning of hostilities in March 2003 has climbed to 950.

In Ramadi, U.S. Marines announced they had detained the police chief of Anbar province, Maj. Gen. Jaadan Mohammed al-Alwan, on suspicion of corruption, embezzlement and extortion, as well as "possible connections with kidnapping and murder."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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