- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

From combined dispatches

NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. troops prepared yesterday for a final showdown with Shi’ite militants in the holy city of Najaf, where fighting with followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has raged for a week.

“Iraqi and U.S. forces are making final preparations as we get ready to finish this fight that the Muqtada militia started,” said Col. Anthony Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Najaf.

The offensive had been expected as early as yesterday, but Marine Maj. David Holahan said preparations were taking longer than thought.

“It doesn’t matter now; they know we’re coming,” Maj. Holahan said.

Najaf’s governor has given U.S. troops permission to enter the city’s holiest site, the Imam Ali shrine.

But underscoring the political sensitivity of such an operation, now that the U.S.-led coalition has returned sovereignty to the Iraqis, Maj. Holahan said Prime Minister Ayad Allawi “makes the final decision.”

Attempts to contact Mr. Allawi’s office last night were not successful.

A Bush administration official in Washington told The Washington Times that U.S. officials had gone to Mr. Allawi with a package of options for dealing with Sheik al-Sadr and that Mr. Allawi had given the go-ahead for an assault.

However earlier in the day, Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari called on U.S. troops to withdraw from Najaf.

“Only Iraqi forces should stay in Najaf. These forces should be responsible for security and should save Najaf from this phenomenon of killing,” Mr. al-Jaafari told the Arab TV network Al Jazeera from London.

A leader in Sheik al-Sadr’s militia warned of retaliation in the event of a U.S.-led offensive by bombing vital oil pipelines in the south.

“If the U.S. forces attacked Najaf tonight, we will blow up the oil pipelines,” Sheik Asaad al-Basri, the leader of the militia in the southern city of Basra, told the Reuters news agency yesterday.

The threat came a few hours after crews finished repairing Iraq’s main southern oil export pipeline and were awaiting orders to start pumping after sabotage halted operations for three days, an official said.

Oil prices rose after the threat, with U.S. light sweet futures up 6 cents to $44.58 in floor trade, more than $1 up from the day’s low.

In Najaf, fighting persisted for the seventh consecutive day in the vast cemetery near the Imam Ali shrine.

Gunbattles between militants and coalition forces in two other southern cities killed 18 persons.

Farther north, U.S. jet fighters bombed the turbulent city of Fallujah, killing four persons, wounding four and damaging several houses, hospital officials said.

A roadside bomb exploded near a market north of Baghdad, killing at least six Iraqis and wounding nine, a hospital official said. The explosion shook the market in Khan Bani Saad, about six miles south of Baqouba.

Shi’ite militants also continued to control parts of Sadr City, a vast neighborhood of Baghdad where at least 1 million Shi’ites live.

In Najaf, the militants were once again firing on U.S. troops from a building 400 yards from the Imam Ali shrine.

“We keep pushing south and they just keep coming,” said Capt. Patrick McFall, from the 1st Cavalry Division.

In neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, warned that Muslims would never forgive the United States for “atrocities” committed in Najaf.

“The Muslim nation and the Iraqi people will not pardon these atrocities, and the Iraqi nation will react with virulence,” he said in a speech broadcast on Iran’s state radio and television.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the scientist who led Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program, Jaffar Dhia Jaffar, said in an interview on the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday that the Iraqi leader ousted last year gave up his country’s weapons of mass destruction in the wake of the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

“There was no capability. There was no chemical or biological or any what are called weapons of mass destruction,” said Mr. Jaffar in what BBC called his first-ever broadcast interview.

Mr. Jaffar, who ran Saddam’s nuclear program for 25 years, said there was “no development” of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons “at any time after 1991.”

Fighting broke out last Thursday in Najaf, home to the mausoleum of Imam Ali, considered by Shi’ites — a majority in Iraq as well as Iran — as a rightful successor of the prophet Muhammad.

“The crimes that the United States is committing in Iraq, particularly in Najaf, one of the holiest places for Shi’ites, will remain like an indelible stain on the face of arrogant America,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in the speech to cultural attaches of Iranian embassies abroad.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranian Shi’ite pilgrims have visited Najaf and other holy cities in southern Iraq since the ouster of Saddam.

In Baghdad, Iraqi police arrested at least three reporters working for Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency, one of its senior editors said yesterday.

Iranian journalists have run into trouble with the authorities in Iraq before. Iraq’s defense minister has recently upped anti-Iranian rhetoric, accusing Tehran of sending spies and weapons across the border to foment unrest.

The top health official in Najaf, Falah al-Mahani, said the deteriorating security situation was causing “a real catastrophe” for the health services.

“Ambulances are prevented from reaching the injured people by the clashing parties. Our staff are not able to reach their hospitals. We are paralyzed,” he said, adding that the fighting injured 18 members of his staff.

Sheik al-Sadr urged his militia to keep fighting even if he was killed or captured.

“I hope that you keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred. … I thank the dear fighters all over Iraq for what they have done to set back injustice,” he said.

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