- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

TEHRAN — Iran, stung by charges it is arming the Iraqi insurgency, said yesterday it had invited Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi for an official visit.

Tehran has been incensed by accusations from Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan, who this week said Iraq’s powerful Shi’ite Muslim neighbor was Baghdad’s prime enemy and that its fingerprints could be seen in the past week’s fighting in Najaf.

That fighting continued for a sixth day yesterday as U.S. forces pounded Shi’ite militiamen from the air and ground while using loudspeakers to urge the defiant fighters to surrender.

Plumes of smoke rose from the city’s ancient cemetery, where members of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia, known as Mahdi’s Army, have dug in and stored caches of weapons. U.S. warplanes attacked their positions at sunset.

Tensions between Iraq and Iran, which fought a war from 1980 to 1988 in which hundreds of thousands were killed, were exacerbated by the kidnapping last week of an Iranian diplomat by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq.

Mr. Shaalan told Al Arabiya television on Monday that Shi’ite Muslim rebels were using arms manufactured in Iran to wage the uprising in Najaf.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Tehran had sent a written invitation to Mr. Allawi, who chose not to visit Iran during a tour of regional countries earlier this month. He gave no date for the proposed visit.

Iran has cautiously welcomed Iraq’s new government as a step toward full Iraqi sovereignty and routinely denies U.S. and Iraqi charges of meddling in its western neighbor’s affairs.

Mr. Kharrazi said he discussed Mr. Shaalan’s accusations with Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari by telephone yesterday.

“The Iraqi foreign minister expressed regret and said [Mr. Shaalan’s comments] were not the official stance of the Iraqi government,” Mr. Kharrazi told the official IRNA news agency.

“Such remarks are designed to create an atmosphere of animosity between the Iraqi and Iranian nations. … The Iraqi government must prudently stop this,” he said.

U.S. Marines have thrown a tight cordon around the cemetery and the Imam Ali shrine but have yet to make a full assault on fighters holed up in the sites, a move that would enrage Iraq’s majority Shi’ites.

The fighting is the toughest test yet for the administration of Mr. Allawi, who is also struggling with a spate of kidnappings aimed at pressuring foreign forces and firms to leave Iraq.

An Islamist Web site carried a videotape yesterday purporting to show the beheading in Iraq of a man identified as an “Egyptian spy” working with U.S. forces.

But in a relief for the cash-strapped government, Iraq resumed full oil production in its southern oil fields after quickly repairing a pipeline valve blown up Monday by saboteurs, an Iraqi oil official said.

Sheik al-Sadr’s uprising has killed and wounded hundreds of Iraqis across central and southern Iraq. Yesterday, his militia attacked an Iraqi police checkpoint in Najaf, killing and wounding several uniformed men, one witness said.

Between firefights, Marines broadcast messages through loudspeakers, urging militiamen to surrender and civilians to steer clear of the area.

Clashes also broke out in a poor Shi’ite Baghdad suburb called Sadr City as fighters brazenly ignored a curfew order.

The Health Ministry said 10 persons had been killed and 104 wounded in fighting over the past 24 hours in Baghdad, including Sadr City. An official said he had no toll from Najaf.

U.S. Marines say they have killed 360 al-Sadr loyalists since Thursday in Najaf, home to 600,000 people some 100 miles south of Baghdad. Sheik al-Sadr’s spokesmen say far fewer have died.

In another sign of Iraq’s lawlessness, the chief of Mr. Allawi’s party in the volatile Sunni city of Ramadi was found dead two days after he was reported missing, family members said.

In Tehran, Mr. Kharrazi said Tehran and Baghdad were in close contact to secure the release of Iran’s consul to Karbala, Fereidoun Jahani, kidnapped last Wednesday by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq.

Mr. Jahani’s captors have issued a statement accusing him of inciting sectarian violence in Iraq.

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