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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Cleric's Militia Still Controls Najaf Mosque

Talks continue over the terms of a hand-over. U.S. forces attack a site nearby and edge closer.

August 22, 2004|David Holley and Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writers

NAJAF, Iraq — Supporters of cleric Muqtada Sadr remained in control of the Imam Ali Mosque on Saturday as negotiations continued over terms for handing the shrine over to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite religious leader.

No weapons were visible inside the mosque, reporters allowed inside said, but armed fighters of Sadr's Al Mahdi militia still stood guard in the maze of narrow streets nearby. At a greater distance from the shrine, U.S. forces with tanks and armored vehicles continued to encircle the area, witnesses said.

"We are winning!" Sadr supporters chanted inside the shrine, displaying portraits of their leader and enthusiastic confidence in front of television cameras. Others held banners that read: "Where is the bullet that will grant me martyrdom?"

U.S. troops crept closer to the mosque early today after launching a late-night attack on a parking garage and office complex west of the shrine. It marked the first time U.S. forces have assaulted the structures, which intelligence officials believe Al Mahdi fighters have been using to launch mortar attacks and to store weapons.

About 250 soldiers in nearly 40 armored vehicles -- including three tanks -- descended upon the western edge of the complex, drawing heavy fire from militants.

On Saturday, an officer at an Iraqi police station near Najaf's Old City said police had arrested 40 suspected militants leaving the area around the mosque. Streets in at least one district near the Old City were largely empty, with residents apparently afraid to venture out. Iraqi police patrolling in two to five vehicles sometimes drove through the streets, firing warning shots into the air.

Little fresh information emerged about talks between Sadr's forces and Sistani's aides on terms for a hand-over of titular control of the mosque. Sistani's side was believed to be insisting that everyone leave the mosque, and that its doors be sealed and its contents inventoried, but there apparently were disagreements about when and how an inventory should be carried out.

U.S. military officials said they were monitoring negotiations, but not taking part in the discussions. There was a growing sense among some military officials and Iraqi leaders that a strike against the mosque might not be necessary and that they could attack the militia at other strongholds, such as the parking garage. "The militia can be broken without taking the mosque," one U.S. military official said.

At a Baghdad news conference Saturday evening, Hussein Sadr, a distant relative of the cleric who helped lead a mediation effort last week, appealed for the militia to quickly leave the shrine in order to "keep the sanctity of our holy sites, to ease the suffering of Najaf and to quiet the situation."

"We are in a race with time," Hussein Sadr said. "I call on Muqtada Sadr -- and all our brothers and sisters -- to understand the depth of this crisis."

Muqtada Sadr's whereabouts were unknown, but some Najaf residents said they believed he was no longer in the mosque or even in the Old City.

Sadr aide Ahmed Shibani told reporters that the militia would continue to guard the mosque -- apparently from outside the compound -- after any hand-over. He also said Sistani's side would have to form a committee to conduct the proposed inventory of the shrine's contents.

The mosque "is a place that contains invaluable treasures and enormous sums of money," Shibani said. "Therefore, there must be a special committee to receive the place."

Sadr's forces were still awaiting Sistani's response to the committee proposal, he said.

Leaders of Iraq's interim government also have expressed hope that the standoff can be resolved without a raid on the mosque. After warning Sadr followers that time was running out, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told BBC Radio on Friday that he had no plans to invade the mosque. "We are not going to attack Muqtada Sadr and the mosque. Evidently we are not going to do this," Allawi said, adding that the "olive branch" was still extended.

In response to today's mobilization by American forces, militia members could be seen taking up defensive positions in and around the mosque, U.S. military officials said.

For nearly three hours, U.S. troops and Sadr militiamen traded gunfire, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades, lighting the sky with flashes of white and orange. Red tracer fire from U.S. tanks buzzed over the nearby graveyard, smashing several tombstones.

The action came a day after several hundred Marines swarmed a complex of buildings in nearby Kufa, about 500 yards west of the main Kufa mosque, which military officials suspect is being used by Sadr's militia. After a heavy firefight, AC-130 warplanes bombed the buildings in a series of explosions heard for miles.

Later, U.S. troops raided the main Kufa police station, which had been infiltrated by the militia, and detained about 29 Iraqis found in a basement. Some of the men claimed that they were being held by Sadr's forces.

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