- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Explosions and gunfire shook Najaf’s Old City yesterday in a fierce battle between U.S. forces and Shi’ite militants, as negotiations dragged on over the turnover of the shrine that the fighters have used as their stronghold.

U.S. warplanes and helicopters attacked positions in the Old City for the second consecutive night with bombs and gunfire, witnesses said. Militant leaders said the Imam Ali shrine compound’s outer walls were damaged in the attacks. The U.S. military had no comment, although it has been careful to avoid damaging the compound.

Also, five U.S. troops were reported dead in separate incidents, and an American journalist held hostage for more than a week was released by his captors.

Yesterday’s clashes in Najaf appeared to be more intense than in recent days as U.S. forces sealed off the Old City. But Iraqi government officials counseled patience, saying they intended to resolve the crisis without raiding the shrine, one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites.

“The government will leave no stone unturned to reach a peaceful settlement,” National Security Adviser Mouaffaq al-Rubaie said. “It has no intention or interest in killing more people or having even the most trivial damage to the shrine. We have a vested interest in a peaceful settlement.”

Senior government officials said last week that an Iraqi force was preparing to raid the shrine within hours to expel the militants loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but Prime Minister Iyad Allawi quickly backed off that threat.

Such an operation would anger Shi’ites across the country and could turn them against the new government as it tries to gain legitimacy and tackle a 16-month-old insurgency.

In Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni insurgency, four U.S. Marines with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed in separate incidents, the military announced yesterday.

One Marine was killed in action on Saturday, and two died Saturday of wounds received while conducting “security and stability operations” in the province, the military said. Another Marine was killed Saturday when his Humvee flipped after running into a tank, the military said.

A roadside bomb attack yesterday targeting a U.S. military convoy outside the northern city of Mosul killed one U.S. soldier assigned to Task Force Olympia and wounded another, the military said. Two Iraqi children were injured in the blast, said Dr. Mohammed Ahmed of Al-Jumhuri Hospital.

As of Friday, 949 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

Late yesterday, U.S. journalist Micah Garen, who was kidnapped Aug. 13 in the southern city of Nasariyah, was released along with his Iraqi translator at Sheik al-Sadr’s offices there after the cleric’s aides appealed for his freedom.

Mr. Garen and his translator, Amir Doushi, were walking through a market when two armed men in civilian clothes seized them, police said. Insurgents later released a video of Mr. Garen and threatened to kill him if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf.

In a brief interview with the pan-Arab television station Al Jazeera after his release, Mr. Garen thanked Sheik al-Sadr’s representatives for their work, which included an appeal to the kidnappers during Friday prayers.

Sheik Aws al-Khafaji, an al-Sadr aide, said the kidnappers mistakenly had thought Mr. Garen was working for U.S. intelligence services.

“The kidnappers listened to the call that we made during Friday prayers, and they contacted us and we asked them to bring him to [Sheik al-Sadr’s] office and promised that no one would pursue them,” Mr. al-Khafaji said.

In Najaf, a fierce battle between the military and Sheik al-Sadr’s militants broke out in the afternoon when insurgents fired a mortar barrage at U.S. troops, witnesses said. Calm returned to the city after about a half-hour.

U.S. forces sealed off the Old City, the center of more than two weeks of fighting here, restoring a cordon that had been loosened in recent days. Several mortar attacks targeted police offices in the city, but no one was injured, officials said.

Fighting in the nearby city of Kufa on Saturday killed 40 militants, according to the Interior Ministry. However, Mahmoud al-Soudani, an al-Sadr aide, called the reports “government propaganda” and said only one militant had been killed.

Sheik al-Sadr has not been seen in public in days, but Mr. al-Soudani said the cleric was in good health and remained in Najaf.

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