[Marxism] Sadr militia leaves shrine, Sistani to take over; 77 reported dead overnight; US attacks Sadr City, bombs Fallujah

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Aug 20 08:15:59 MDT 2004


BREAKING NEWS
NBC, MSNBC and news services
Updated: 9:42 a.m. ET Aug. 20, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq - Militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have
left the holy shrine in Najaf and Iraqi police are in control there,
Iraq's Interior Ministry reported Frida
 
"The Iraqi police are now in control of the shrine, along with the
religious authorities," a senior ministry spokesman told Reuters.

A spokesman for al-Sadr had earlier said the militia was prepared to
hand control of the revered Imam Ali Shrine to top Shiite religious
authorities. 

The moves came after a day and night of fighting in Najaf that killed 77
people and wounded 70 others, as al-Sadr militiamen mortared a police
station and U.S. warplanes carried out bombing raids.

By daylight Friday, the holy city south of Baghdad appeared the quietest
it has in weeks and there were signs that the two-week standoff may be
easing. 

The Arab satellite channel al-Arabiya reported that Iraqi forces had
entered the Imam Ali shrine without fighting, while an aide to the Grand
Ayatollah Ali Sistani said the cleric had agreed to take over control of
the shrine from al-Sadr's forces.

However, al-Sistani's office and the followers of al-Sadr still needed
to discuss the details of such a transfer, Sheik Hamed Khafaf, an
al-Sistani aide, said from London.
  
"We told al-Sadr's office that if they want to hand over the keys (to
the shrine) to the Shiite religious leadership, then the religious
leadership will welcome this in order to defuse the crisis," he told the
Associated Press. 

"But, the mechanism of the handover should be studied, and this has not
happened yet," he said. When asked if al-Sistani had basically agreed to
take over the shrine, he said, "Yes." 

Push for peace
Earlier, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said a peaceful resolution
in Najaf was possible and backed off the threats he made a day earlier
to send a massive Iraqi force into the shrine to root out militants, a
move that could damage the holy site and further enrage the nation's
majority Shiites.

"We are not going to attack the mosque, we are not going to attack
Muqtada al-Sadr and the mosque, evidently we are not going to do this,"
Allawi told BBC radio. "We are not going to attack the shrines at all."

"We have extended the olive branch, the olive branch is still extended,
he can take advantage of the olive branch," Allawi said. "We want a
peaceful solution."

Earlier on Friday, al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said he was planning
to offer control of the mosque to al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite Muslim
cleric.

"We don't want to appease the government ... we want to appease the
Iraqi people," he said.

However, a senior Western diplomat told NBC News on condition of
anonymity that Iraqi coalition officials place almost no faith in
statements by al-Sadr. 

"We are very cautious about his sincerity," the diplomat, speaking to
several reporters, said Thursday.

The contradictory statements attributed to al-Sadr on Wednesday -
accepting all Iraqi government demands - and Thursday - rejecting them
out of hand - underscores the problem.

The Western diplomat, who has negotiated with al-Sadr's representatives,
said he believes there is a split among the junior cleric's advisors.
"His lieutenants and aides are not of one opinion," he said.

 
Heavy fighting has raged in Najaf for nearly two weeks. 
The diplomat expressed frustration at al-Sadr's outsized importance.
Al-Sadr has almost no political organization, and his influence comes
almost solely from violence against U.S. and Iraqi forces.

"He's at a real (political) disadvantage. So in order to be heard, he
needs to have guns," the diplomat told NBC News.

Recent opinion polls show that security is a paramount concern for
Iraqis. The diplomat said the situation in Najaf couldn't continue
indefinitely. If it does, there is a risk of a "militia-ization" of the
rest of the country, as insurgents in other Iraqi cities exploit the
Iraqi government's perceived weakness in dealing with al-Sadr's
uprising. 


In a sermon read on his behalf in the nearby Kufa Mosque, al-Sadr again
offered a mixed message, saying he wanted the religious authorities to
take control of the Old City from his Mahdi Army, but calling on all
Muslims to rise up if the shrine is attacked.

"I call on the Arab and Islamic people: If you see the dome of the holy
Imam Ali Shrine shelled, don't be lax in resisting the occupier in your
countries," he said. It was unclear if al-Sadr was calling for worldwide
attacks on U.S. forces - which he often refers to as Iraq's occupier.

Najaf calm after overnight battles
With peace efforts continuing, U.S. tanks were on the streets late
Friday morning, but residents reported seeing some of the Mahdi Army
militia pulling out of the Old City.

The Imam Ali Shrine compound, which had been filled with hundreds of
chanting and bellicose gunmen in recent days, appeared far calmer. Video
of the compound and its outskirts, shown on the Arab television station
Al-Jazeera, revealed far fewer people inside and no armed men. One
sandbagged gun position outside the shrine was abandoned.

U.S. forces said they were still geared up for a fight.

"We are continuing to do planning and preparations for continuous
offensive operations to get Mahdi militia destroyed, to capture Muqtada
al-Sadr and to turn the holy shrine back to the Iraqi people," Lt. Col.
Myles Miyamasu, of the 1st Cavalry Division, told CNN on Friday.

Explosions and gunbattles raged in Najaf all day Thursday. During the
night, warplanes were "clearing Muqtada militia positions" east of the
shrine, U.S. Marine Capt. Carrie Batson said. At least 30 explosions
shook the Old City.

Before dawn Friday, U.S. forces also fired precision-guided bombs at
militiamen who were firing mortars at U.S. troops in the neighboring
cemetery and Old City, Batson said.

Earlier Thursday, militants bombarded a Najaf police station with mortar
rounds, killing seven police and injuring 35 others. Another round hit
near the same station Friday, but inflicted no casualties.


Troops pull out of Sadr City, strike Fallujah
In Baghdad, troops from the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division pulled out
of the Sadr City slum, scene of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and
supporters of the rebel cleric the day before, when five fighters and
five civilians were killed.

U.S. Capt. Brian O'Malley said soldiers "went all the way through the
city and back" but pulled out Friday to respect the Muslim Sabbath.

In Fallujah, U.S. warplanes launched two airstrikes Friday on the
troubled Iraqi city, considered a hotbed of Sunni Muslim insurgents. Two
people were killed and six injured in the first attack just after
midnight, said Dia'a al-Jumeili, a doctor at Fallujah's main hospital.

A second warplane fired at least one missile into an industrial area of
the city later Friday morning. It exploded in an open field, leaving a
crater and spraying shrapnel across the doors of nearby automobile
shops, but causing no serious damage.

Shrapnel from the second blast also hit an ice cream factory, wounding
three people, said Adel Khamis, another doctor at Fallujah General
Hospital.

U.S. forces have routinely bombed targets in the city it says are
insurgent safehouses or strongholds. Fallujah is located some 40 miles
west of Baghdad, witnesses said.

Elsewhere, two U.S. Marines were killed in action in Iraq's volatile
Anbar province, the U.S. military said Friday. 

One Marine assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force died of wounds
received in action Wednesday, the military said in a 





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