- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. tanks and snipers took up positions near the revered Imam Ali shrine amid fierce battles with militants yesterday as the U.S. military sought to drive the insurgents out of the holy site.

Last night, U.S. warplanes bombed an area of the Old City and shrapnel from the attack hit the shrine’s golden dome, one of its minarets and the compound’s outer wall, said Ahmed al-Shaibany, an aide to militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is leading the uprising. A fire near the area lit up the night sky.

The U.S. military had no immediate comment.

Munitions earlier yesterday ripped a chunk out of the outer wall of the shrine compound. Explosions throughout the day shook the Old City — a mix of streets and narrow, mazelike alleys that is at the center of much of the fighting — sending up clouds of black smoke.

With the U.S. advance yesterday, fewer militants were visible in the streets of Najaf and some were seen leaving the city. Militant medical officials said at least two insurgents were killed and four others injured.

Al-Hakim Hospital reported two dead civilians and two others injured, but many more casualties were reported in the Old City and could not be reached by emergency workers, said Hussein Hadi, a hospital employee.

Sheik al-Sadr has not been seen in public for many days, and police drove around Najaf with loudspeakers declaring that he had fled and was headed to the northern city of Sulaymaniyah. Sheik al-Sadr’s aides denied that.

“Muqtada al-Sadr is still in Najaf and is still supervising the operations,” Sheik Aws al-Khafaji, the head of Sheik al-Sadr’s office in the southern city of Nasiriyah, told the pan-Arab television station Al-Jazeera.

Concern that the violence could spread has prompted calls by Iraq’s neighbors and other Islamic countries for international intervention to end the fighting in Najaf.

In Baghdad’s heavily Shi’ite Sadr City neighborhood, which has been wracked by violence since the Najaf uprising, an explosion yesterday killed four persons and injured nine others, said Dr. Qasim Saddam, director of Sadr Hospital. The cause of the blast was unclear, and the U.S. military said it was unaware of the incident.

The Najaf fighting, which began Aug. 5, has killed at least 40 Iraqi policemen, eight U.S. troops and scores of civilian bystanders. The U.S. military says it has killed hundreds of militants, though the insurgents say their casualties have been far lower.

Government officials have sent mixed messages in recent days, first threatening to raid the shrine — which would infuriate the nation’s Shi’ite majority — then backing down and saying they were willing to wait for a peaceful solution.

Sheik al-Sadr’s aides said Friday they would turn over the shrine to Shi’ite religious authorities, but the militants still had not withdrawn by yesterday amid squabbling with the religious leaders over the details of the pullout.

Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib said the government would not wait indefinitely.

“Certainly there’s a limit, and I think the period has started to narrow,” he told Al Arabiya television. “It could be days or it could be hours. Such decisions are taken at the time, depending on the developments.”

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