- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 10, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — With fighting raging for a fifth day in Najaf, Iraq’s interim defense minister yesterday accused Iran of sending weapons to Shi’ite insurgents in the city.

Meanwhile, radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr vowed, that he would continue the battle “until the last drop of my blood has been spilled.”

The uprising by Sheik al-Sadr’s militia began to affect Iraq’s crucial oil industry, as pumping to the southern port of Basra was halted by threats to infrastructure, an official with the South Oil Co. said.

Clashes also intensified in Basra, where a British soldier was killed and several others wounded in fighting near Sheik al-Sadr’s office, the British Defense Ministry said. Iraqi police reported three militants killed and more than 10 wounded.

Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, who previously had described Iran as Iraq’s “first enemy,” made the comments about his country’s eastern neighbor during an interview broadcast on the Arab-language television network Al Arabiya.

“There are Iranian-made weapons that have been found in the hands of criminals in Najaf who received these weapons from across the Iranian border,” Mr. Shaalan said.

Asked whether Iran was still considered the “top enemy” of Iraq, he answered ambiguously.

“From far and near, the facts that we have say that what has happened to the Iraqi people is done by the one who is considered the top enemy,” he said.

“For the first time, the Iraqis see the bodies of children, the body parts of children, the bodies of women and the body parts of women on the street. Yes. This is the truth.”

Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi said last week that 80 men who fought U.S. forces at a sprawling cemetery in Najaf were Iranian. “There is Iranian support to al-Sadr’s group, and this is no secret,” he said on Friday.

Iran has denied interfering in Iraq. It says it does not allow fighters to cross into Iraq, but it does not rule out that such people might cross the long border illegally.

Mahdi’s Army, Sheik al-Sadr’s militia, has been battling U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces in Najaf since Thursday.

U.S. forces yesterday tried once more to drive the militiamen from the cemetery, and an American tank rattled up to within 400 yards of the revered Imam Ali shrine, which fighters reportedly have been using as a base.

Meanwhile, Sunni Muslim militants attacked targets around Baghdad. A suicide car bombing aimed at a deputy governor killed six persons, and a roadside bomb hit a bus, killing four passengers.

The U.S. military also said a U.S. Marine was killed in action on Sunday in the western province of Anbar. The death brought to at least 927 the number of American troops who have died in Iraq since the start of the war.

An insurgent group warned in a videotaped message that it would conduct attacks on government offices in Baghdad, telling employees to stay away. Sheik al-Sadr’s militants kidnapped a top Baghdad police official and demanded that their comrades in detention be set free.

In Nasariyah, 190 miles south of Baghdad, militants raided the local office of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord party, set it on fire and warned party members to leave the city. There were no injuries in the Sunday night attack, said police Capt. Haydar Abboud.

Sheik al-Sadr’s vow to keep fighting was a defiant challenge to Mr. Allawi, who called on the Shi’ite militants to stop fighting during a visit to Najaf on Sunday.

“I will continue fighting,” the firebrand cleric told reporters in Najaf. “I will remain in Najaf city until the last drop of my blood has been spilled.”

“Resistance will continue and increase day by day,” he said. “Our demand is for the American occupation to get out of Iraq. We want an independent, democratic, free country.”

Fighting remained centered on the vast cemetery near the Imam Ali shrine. The U.S. military said Mahdi’s Army gunmen were staging attacks from the cemetery and then running to take refuge in the shrine compound, one of the holiest sites in Shi’ite Islam.

Mr. al-Zurufi gave U.S. forces approval to enter the shrine, a senior U.S. military official said yesterday.

“We have elected at this point not to conduct operations there, although we are prepared to do so at a moment’s notice,” the official said.

Such an offensive would almost certainly outrage the nation’s Shi’ite majority and exacerbate the crisis.

The military official estimated that 360 insurgents had been killed between Thursday and Sunday — a figure the militants dispute. Five U.S. troops have been killed, and Najaf police chief Brig. Ghalib al-Jazaari said about 20 policemen had died.

Hospital officials said four persons, including three policemen, were killed yesterday and 19 others injured. In addition, 13 previously unidentified bodies had been brought to the hospital.

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