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U.S. Forces Target Insurgents at Cemetery

As the clashes continue in Najaf, a few Iraqi officials who back Sadr speak out in his behalf.

August 11, 2004|Edmund Sanders and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. tanks and helicopter gunships pounded insurgents' positions in this holy city Tuesday, hitting targets in a cemetery where fighting has raged and blasting a building near a gold-domed shrine believed to house followers of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Marines drove through neighborhoods with loudspeakers and warned militiamen to "leave Najaf in peace or your destiny will be death." The troops also distributed handbills encouraging residents to cooperate with U.S. forces and turn in Sadr's fighters.

As clashes continued for a sixth day, U.S. military leaders and representatives of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi met at a base north of Najaf to discuss ways to destroy Sadr's militia.

But in an indication of the political sensitivities the fighting has raised, several Sadr supporters who are high-ranking provincial officials in southern Iraq spoke out in Sadr's behalf, describing his forces as patriotic and demanding greater autonomy from the central government.

Fighting between Sadr's militia and multinational and Iraqi forces has also erupted in the southern city of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City district.

The Health Ministry reported Tuesday that 10 people were killed and 104 wounded in a 24-hour period in Baghdad. Four people were killed and 18 wounded in Basra, the ministry said.

U.S. officials in Najaf estimated that 19 more insurgents had been killed there.

Amid the violence, some political leaders in predominantly Shiite southern Iraq agreed that the Americans and interim government officials had misjudged public sentiment.

Salam Maliki, deputy governor of Basra province and Sadr's representative there, claimed Tuesday that the governors of Basra, Dhi Qar and Maysan provinces had decided to break ranks with interim government policy and demand autonomy. His claim could not be independently verified.

But Ali Humood Mosawi, a Sadr supporter who is head of the Amarah City Council and a top figure in Maysan's provincial politics, also said the three southern provinces were pressing for regional autonomy because of the clashes.

"Now because a crisis has erupted in Najaf, in Sadr City and in other areas, the government is oppressing the people," Mosawi said.

"The central government and the occupying forces are provoking millions of Iraqis. Sadr's movement is an honest and patriotic one."

Mosawi noted that the southern provinces hold much of Iraq's oil and suggested that the region could use its economic power to press its demands.

"As Shiites we feel our loyalty is to all Iraq, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have our rights," he said.

U.S. officials declined to comment but indicated that they were monitoring the demands for autonomy, which Iraqi newspapers have reported.

The southerners' autonomy demands seemed linked to a national conference of civic and tribal leaders due to open Sunday if arrangements are completed. The gathering aims to appoint an interim national assembly and debate issues of Iraq's political future.

In a broadcast on Al Jazeera television today, interim Vice President Ibrahim Jafari said: "I call for multinational forces to leave Najaf and for only Iraqi forces to remain there." Jafari, a Shiite who is considered a moderate, said Iraqis could "end this phenomenon of violence."

It was the second time in a week that Jafari has expressed opposition to the U.S. effort in Najaf. Last week, he said there was "no justification" for the U.S. assault.

Tuesday's combat in Najaf was slightly less intense than that of previous days, but sporadic gun battles and sweeps by Bradley fighting vehicles continued in the vast cemetery near the Imam Ali shrine. One soldier was shot in the leg.

The nearby shrine is one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. In one of the closest major strikes to the mosque yet, U.S. attack helicopters destroyed a building 400 yards away.

A cease-fire negotiated after fighting with Sadr's forces in the spring established an "exclusion zone" for U.S.-led forces around the mosque and cemetery, but American commanders say Sadr's militia has nullified that agreement by using the area to store weapons and stage attacks and kidnapping operations against Iraqi security forces.

According to a statement Tuesday from the U.S. military, Sadr's forces have brought kidnap victims, including civilians, to the cemetery for "torture, execution and burial," thereby making the graveyard "a legitimate military objective."

"We will not allow them to continue to desecrate this sacred site," Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commander of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is conducting the Najaf operations with Iraqi forces, said in the statement.

On Tuesday, Iraqi police raided an Islamic court run by Sadr in the nearby city of Kufa and seized documents but no suspects. Meanwhile, Sadr's militiamen struck three police stations in Najaf in 24 hours with mortar and small-arms fire, military officials said.

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