- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. helicopter gunships and fighter jets pounded Iraqi insurgents hiding in a sprawling cemetery yesterday in the most intense fighting in this Shi’ite holy city since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The U.S. military said 300 militants were killed in the past two days.

The clashes between coalition forces and militant Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army flared in Shi’ite communities across the country, killing dozens of other Iraqis, according to Iraqi officials and the militants.

The fighting threatened to re-ignite the bloody, two-month Shi’ite insurrection that broke out in April — and the heavy U.S. response appeared designed to quash militia activity quickly and prevent a repeat.

Meanwhile, in New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday added to the Iraq malaise, warning that the United Nations remains “a high-value” target for attacks there for the foreseeable future, which will severely limit the number of U.N. staff allowed in the country.

“Security will remain the primary obstacle and constraint,” Mr. Annan said in a report.

“A qualitative improvement of the overall security environment is an essential prerequisite for the success of U.N. efforts in Iraq.”

Sheik al-Sadr yesterday blamed all the violence in Iraq on the United States, which he called “our enemy and the enemy of the people,” in a sermon read on his behalf at the Kufa Mosque near Najaf.

The Iraqi government said it was determined to crush all militias in the country, including the Mahdi’s Army, and Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi gave the insurgents 24 hours to leave the city.

“We believe that the end of the military operations is dependent on the exit of the armed militias from Najaf,” he told reporters.

The Mahdi’s Army has proved difficult to put down in the past. It persisted despite heavy casualties during its first uprising, and U.S. commanders — hesitant to carry out a full-fledged assault in the holiest Shi’ite city — were forced to back down from vows to uproot the militia. A series of truces finally brought calm in June.

Intense pre-dawn clashes hit Baghdad’s Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City, where 20 persons were killed and 114 wounded during two days of fighting, the Health Ministry said. Separate attacks blamed on Sheik al-Sadr’s followers wounded 15 American soldiers in Baghdad, the U.S. military said yesterday.

Amid the violence, Sheik al-Sadr’s aides called for a return to the truce and asked for the United Nations and the government to step in.

“We call upon the government — that has announced that it is sovereign — to intervene to stop the American attacks,” said Mahmoud al-Sudani, an al-Sadr spokesman.

Shi’ite leaders said they were working to restore the cease-fire.

“We are sparing no effort to reach a peaceful settlement by opening a direct dialogue between Muqtada al-Sadr’s representatives on the one hand and the transitional government on the other,” Ammar al-Hakeem, a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a top Shi’ite political faction, told Al Jazeera television.

The fighting yesterday dwarfed the clashes seen in the spring, residents said. Two U.S. Marines and an American soldier were killed in Najaf on Thursday, and 12 troops were wounded, the military said. The two days of fighting in Najaf also killed at least 13 civilians and wounded 58 others, according to hospital officials.

Gunfire and explosions rocked Najaf yesterday as helicopters flew overhead. The streets were nearly deserted, shops were closed, and some residents near the cemetery fled with their belongings on carts. A dead woman lay abandoned on an empty sidewalk, Associated Press Television News footage showed.

Fire tore through a nearby outdoor market and smoke rose from several parts of the city.

U.S. Marines chased the militants into the massive cemetery, which the militants had been using as a base, military officials said. Helicopter gunships slammed insurgent positions in the cemetery, and Marines were sent in to root out militiamen, the military said.

The insurgents have taken advantage of the cemetery’s location in the so-called Exclusion Zone — where U.S. forces were forbidden under the truces — to use as a base for attacks and a weapons-storage site, said Lt. Col. Gary Johnston, operations officer for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

After the militiamen attacked a police station from the cemetery early Thursday, the U.S. military retaliated, he said.

U.S. Col. Anthony Haslam, chief of operations in Najaf, said 300 militants out of a total force of about 2,000 had been killed in Najaf since Thursday.

There was no independent confirmation of that number, which would be among the largest militant death tolls in a single engagement since the end of the war last year.

Ahmed al-Shaibany, an al-Sadr aide in Najaf, said only nine militants were killed and 20 injured in the city.

Mr. al-Zurufi estimated 400 militants were killed and 1,000 arrested. He also said 80 of the fighters at the cemetery were Iranian. “There is Iranian support to al-Sadr’s group, and this is no secret,” he said.

Guerrillas attacked a convoy of U.S. Humvees at dawn in the city of Samarra, 60 miles north of the capital, witnesses said, and U.S. helicopters responded with rockets at insurgent positions. At least two persons were killed and 16 injured during the fighting, an official at Samarra Hospital said.

In southern Iraq, British troops backed by tanks fought with al-Sadr militiamen who seized four police stations on the outskirts of Amarah. The troops secured the main police station, a British military spokesman said.

In Nasiriyah, assailants attacked Italian troops early yesterday with automatic weapons and targeted a police station, an Italian military spokesman said. Eight Iraqis, including five militants, were killed, and 13 were wounded, according to a senior Interior Ministry official.

Assailants also attacked a police station and City Hall in the southern city of Basra, wounding three police and five civilians. Violence in Basra since Thursday killed five al-Sadr fighters, an al-Sadr official in the city said.

Also yesterday, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said four Lebanese truck drivers had been taken hostage in Iraq as they drove from Baghdad to Ramadi.

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