- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr yesterday dashed hopes for an end to the siege in Najaf, with his fighters vowing to remain inside one of Shi’ite Islam’s most holy shrines, with or without the keys.

“We will keep defending the shrine after handing over the keys. There will be no end,” declared Ahmed Shebani, Sheik al-Sadr’s spokesman, reflecting the defiance of militants inside the Imam Ali mosque.

Despite last week’s relentless onslaught on the old city in Najaf, morale seemed high among the fighters and Sheik al-Sadr’s supporters.

As the morning sun reflected off the shrine’s golden minarets, hundreds marched around the courtyard singing and waving black flags.

Soon after, the vast cemetery, a stronghold of Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army militia, came under American bombardment, yet nobody flinched: only the donkeys pulling traders’ carts seemed alarmed.

Inside the gold-domed mosque, many appeared to find it all amusing — one street hawker outside the shrine started juggling an inch-long piece of shrapnel that was too hot to hold.

Throughout the day, representatives of Sheik al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite leader, bickered over details of the proposed turnover of keys to the sacred site.

Al-Sadr aides said they had tried to hand the keys over to the ayatollah’s followers, but claimed that they refused to accept them, demanding the shrine be evacuated first.

Mr Shebani’s insistence that the Mahdi’s Army would continue to defend the shrine, however, appeared to end hopes that the transfer of the keys would be anything other than a symbolic act.

Ayatollah al-Sistani is recovering from heart surgery in London. A spokesman for the Imam Ali Foundation in London said that he had instructed on Friday that the keys should be delivered to his office in Najaf, but that they had not been received.

Spokesman Jaffar Bassam said the ayatollah was “saddened and very worried” and that he planned to return to Najaf as soon as possible.

Yesterday’s clashes between U.S. troops and al-Sadr fighters were brief but heavy, punctuated by gunfire and explosions, with one blast hitting the street 50 yards from the shrine.

Marine Capt. Carrie Batson said U.S. troops came under mortar attack in the Old City and destroyed two militant mortar positions with gunfire and an Apache helicopter attack.

The fighting died down after about 45 minutes, returning the city to relative calm.

Elsewhere, a series of attacks targeting U.S. and Iraqi forces throughout Iraq yesterday killed a U.S. soldier, a Polish soldier and five Iraqis.

The standoff has frustrated many in Najaf, who have suffered disruptions in their water and electricity, had their streets rocked by explosions and seen scores of their innocent neighbors killed since the fighting started Aug. 5.

“All parties are stalling,” Saeed Mohammed, 41, told the Associated Press. “There has been no change, only more shelling and clashes that have hurt the city even more.”

As the crisis continued, another al-Sadr aide, Sheik Awas al-Khafaji, said that kidnappers had lifted their threat to kill a U.S. journalist abducted in the southern city of Nasiriyah along with his Iraqi translator Aug. 13, the AP reported.

The kidnappers, calling themselves the Martyrs Brigade, threatened Thursday to kill Micah Garen of New York within 48 hours if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf.

Sheik Al-Khafaji said yesterday that mediators told him the death threat had been removed and they were working for Mr. Garen’s release.

Violence continued across the country.

Insurgents bombed an oil pipeline in Berjisiya, 20 miles southwest of the southern city of Basra yesterday, setting it ablaze, said Lt. Mohammed al-Mousawi of the Iraqi National Guard.

The pipeline, which connects the Rumeila oil fields with export storage tanks in the Faw Peninsula, had been shut down for a week by threats from insurgents, and the attack did not appear likely to affect exports.

Early Saturday, attackers fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. military vehicle in Baghdad, killing one U.S. soldier and wounding two others, the military said.

Explosions continued to rock residential neighborhoods in Baghdad, having become so routine that they are rarely mentioned in daily news reports.

In the northern city of Mosul, one Iraqi National Guard soldier was killed and two guardsmen and three civilians were wounded when a bomb exploded.

Assailants detonated a roadside bomb after a U.S. convoy drove by in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing two civilians and injuring four others, said Hussein Ali, a hospital official.

A roadside bomb also exploded in Sabtiya, two miles north of Baqouba, after a U.S. convoy passed, killing a sanitation worker cleaning the street and wounding another Iraqi, said hospital official Mudher Sabah.

In Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, gunmen shot and killed Lt. Col. Saad Smayer, a senior police officer, as he left home for work, said provincial police chief Maj. Gen. Jaadan Mohammed al-Alwan.

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