- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. Marines backed by tanks and aircraft seized the heart of the Iraqi holy city of Najaf yesterday in a major assault on Shi’ite rebels that helped drive world oil prices to record highs.

Warplanes pounded militia positions in a cemetery next to the Imam Ali Mosque while U.S. forces stormed the home of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric at the center of the weeklong uprising that has killed hundreds in seven cities.

Sheik al-Sadr was believed to be holed up in the mosque along with hundreds of his Mahdi’s Army militia, witnesses said.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a Shi’ite, urged the militiamen to lay down their arms and leave the mosque, a site sacred to millions of Shi’ites around the world.

The U.S.-led assault in such a sacred city for Iraq’s majority Shi’ite community could spark a firestorm for Mr. Allawi, who needs to crush a rebellion that has disrupted vital oil exports and threatened to undermine his six-week-old government.

“This government calls upon all the armed groups to drop their weapons and rejoin society. We call upon all the armed men to evacuate the holy shrine and not to violate its holiness,” Mr. Allawi said in a statement read by a senior official.

Oil prices hit new highs on the offensive, which the militia has warned could trigger more attacks on oil infrastructure. Crude oil futures in New York peaked at $45.75 a barrel, the highest price in 21 years of trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Late in the afternoon, U.S. warplanes bombed targets near Sheik al-Sadr’s house as Marines battled militiamen in the area. Black smoke billowed as combatants exchanged heavy fire. U.S. forces stormed Sheik al-Sadr’s house just before nightfall.

Marines also blocked entry to the Imam Ali Mosque. After nightfall, witnesses said the city appeared largely calm.

In the southeastern city of Kut, at least 72 persons were killed in U.S. air raids and fighting between Iraqi police and Mahdi’s Army yesterday, the Health Ministry said.

The U.S. military said it had deployed its heavily armed AC-130 gunship to attack insurgents in the area and that more than 20 buildings had been destroyed.

The Health Ministry said 25 persons were killed in clashes in Baghdad and 21 in other cities in the past 24 hours. There were no immediate casualty figures from the Najaf offensive.

Protests broke out in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra after the start of the offensive.

Wary of igniting more anger, the U.S. military said the assault would exclude the Imam Ali Mosque. Government officials said only Iraqi forces would disarm militia inside.

But Mahdi’s Army raised the prospect of a bloody battle, vowing no surrender and saying Sheik al-Sadr was leading the defense at the shrine and vast cemetery, one of the Middle East’s largest.

“The morale of the fighters is very high,” said Ahmed al-Shaibany, a senior al-Sadr spokesman in Najaf.

Despite threats from the militia, Iraq reopened its main southern oil export pipeline after a sabotage attack Monday and expected full supplies by late last night, an official said.

Militiamen responded to the American assault in Najaf with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Many civilians fled the center of the city, some escaping on carts pulled by donkeys.

Some 2,000 U.S. servicemen and 1,800 Iraqi security forces are deployed around Najaf, a city of 600,000 about 100 miles south of Baghdad.

The U.S. military said Iraqi forces were actively involved in the offensive, although witnesses said American troops were doing most of the fighting.

As news of the offensive filtered in, thousands of Shi’ites took to the streets in Basra and a Baghdad district to protest.

“Long live Sadr; America and Allawi are infidels,” thousands of protesters in Basra chanted.

A Reuters photographer said he had seen dozens of dead militiamen in houses in Najaf. He said the bodies had been taken from the battle zone and covered with ice to preserve them before burial. It was not clear when they had been killed.

Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is in London undergoing medical treatment, called for an immediate end to the fighting in his hometown, aide Hussein Shahristani said.

“All efforts should be directed to finding a peaceful solution. A military solution will resolve nothing,” he said.

In Damascus, a Syrian official said Iraq’s next-door neighbor Syria is “deeply disturbed” by the fighting in Najaf, and especially by the U.S. raids.

The unidentified official, quoted by the official news agency SANA, said Syria was “worried about the growing number of civilian victims.”

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