- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr yesterday ordered his fighters to hand over control of a revered Najaf shrine to top Shi’ite religious authorities.

He took the action hours after U.S. forces bombed militant positions and Iraq’s prime minister made a “final call” for the cleric’s militia to surrender.

Blasts and gunbattles persisted throughout the day in the streets of Najaf, where militants bombarded a police station with mortar rounds, killing seven police officers and injuring 35 others. At night, at least 30 explosions shook the Old City as a U.S. plane hit militant targets east of the Imam Ali shrine.

U.S. forces also battled Sheik al-Sadr’s supporters in a Baghdad slum, where militants said five fighters and five civilians were killed.

Also, late yesterday, an American warplane bombed targets in the Sunni city of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad. Insurgents fired back mortars toward a U.S. base as calls of “God is great” and Koranic verses blared from the loudspeakers of Fallujah’s mosques.

Militants elsewhere in Iraq attacked oil facilities in the north and south, fired mortars at U.S. Embassy offices in the capital, injuring one American, and threatened to kill two hostages, a Turkish worker and a U.S. journalist.

In a speech, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had warned the radical cleric to disarm his forces and withdraw from the shrine after his government threatened to send a massive Iraqi force to root them out.

Defying that ultimatum, Sheik al-Sadr sent a telephone text message vowing to seek “martyrdom or victory,” and his jubilant followers inside the shrine danced and chanted.

Later in the day, a top al-Sadr aide said the cleric had ordered his militia to relinquish control of the shrine where they have been holed up for two weeks fighting Iraqi and U.S. forces. But in a letter shown by the Arab television station Al-Arabiya, Sheik al-Sadr said he would not disband his Mahdi’s Army.

Sheik al-Sadr had said in recent days he wanted to make sure the shrine was in the custody of religious authorities, though it was not clear whether the government would agree to that.

The violence in the holy city between the insurgents and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force has angered many in Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and proven a major challenge to Mr. Allawi’s fledgling interim government as it tries to build credibility and prove it is not a U.S. puppet.

Any raid to oust militants from the Imam Ali shrine — especially one that damaged the holy site — could spark a far larger Shi’ite uprising. Government accusations that militants have mined the shrine compound and reports that women and children were among those inside could further complicate a raid.

Some of those in the compound were “dancing and cheering,” a CNN journalist reported from inside the shrine, where she was among journalists escorted there with help from the Iraqi government, the U.S. military and Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army.

“They are all very proud to be in here and seem to be very adamant about staying in here,” CNN reporter Kianne Sadeq said. “They aren’t going anywhere until the fighting is over.”

In the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City — named for the cleric’s late father — U.S. tanks moved throughout the streets and helicopter gunships shot at al-Sadr militants. The militants said five fighters and five civilians were killed.

There was no certainty that the latest offer from Sheik al-Sadr to withdraw would be implemented, as both sides appeared to be engaged in brinkmanship.

Yesterday’s violence came a day after Sheik al-Sadr had accepted an Iraqi delegation’s peace plan for Najaf that demanded he disarm his militia, leave the shrine and turn to politics in exchange for amnesty. But he continued to attach conditions the government rejected, and fighting persisted.

Reiterating his government’s refusal to negotiate with the armed militants, Mr. Allawi had called on Sheik al-Sadr to personally accept the government’s demands to end the Najaf fighting — not through aides or letters as he has been communicating so far.

“When we hear from him and that he is committed to execute these conditions we will … give him and his group protection,” the prime minister said in a Baghdad press conference.

In Washington, the Bush administration said Sheik al-Sadr needed to match words with deeds. “We have seen many, many times al-Sadr assume or say he is going to accept certain terms and then it turns out not to be the case,” said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

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