NAJAF, Iraq — American tanks firing shells and machine guns yesterday made their deepest incursion yet into this stronghold of a radical cleric.
One of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines was slightly damaged, apparently by gunfire, prompting calls for revenge and even suicide attacks.
In response, Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s militiamen attacked U.S.-led coalition headquarters in Nasiriyah, trapping international staff inside. Explosions and gunfire also rocked Karbala.
In other developments, the United States freed 293 Iraqi detainees from Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
Hamid al-Bayati, spokesman for a mainstream Shi’ite group represented on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, called the fighting in Najaf a “big mistake” that could inflame sectarian passions. He urged both sides to mediate an end to the standoff in the city, the most important center of Shi’ite theology and scholarship.
At least four Iraqi civilians were killed and 26 wounded yesterday in Najaf, according to a hospital official. One coalition soldier was wounded, U.S. officials said. At least three militiamen also were killed.
Explosions and machine-gun fire rocked Najaf for hours, and bands of gunmen carrying assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar launchers roamed the city, which is about 100 miles south of Baghdad. After a lull, sporadic firing resumed as night fell.
Four punctures, each approximately 12 inches high and 8 inches wide, could be seen on the golden dome of the Imam Ali Mosque, burial place of Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the Shi’ites’ most revered saint.
The mosque is in the middle of Najaf on a high desert plateau overlooking the world’s largest cemetery.
Militia members blamed the Americans for the damage to the mosque, but Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said in Baghdad that Sheik al-Sadr’s men were probably responsible: “I can just tell you by the looks of where we were firing and where Muqtada’s militia was firing, I would put my money that Muqtada caused it.”
Gen. Kimmitt accused the militia of using religious sites “much like human shields.” He said American forces had not initiated the fighting but were responding to attacks by Sheik al-Sadr’s gunmen.
That did little to assuage the anger of many Shi’ites in Najaf. By early evening, thousands gathered around the Imam Ali shrine to inspect the damage. Some shook their heads in disbelief. Others mumbled prayers.
“The Americans had better leave Iraq after this,” said Jassim Mohammed. Another man, Abu Zahraa al-Daraji, added: “The Americans have crossed a red line.”
Sheik al-Sadr’s aides called on their followers to rise up against the coalition. His representative in Nasiriyah, Sheik Aws al-Khafaji, threatened attacks on coalition forces there, most of whom are Italians.
After his threat, armed men attacked coalition headquarters in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad. They fired at least five rocket-propelled grenades within a half hour as Italian troops and Filipino security guards fought back.
About 10 coalition staffers, including Italians, Americans and Britons along with 10 drivers and security guards, were trapped in the building along with four Italian journalists, coalition officials said.
In Baghdad, aides to Sheik al-Sadr urged followers in Sadr City to travel to Najaf to reinforce the militia. The cleric’s representative in the southern city of Basra, Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli, said he would form suicide squads to carry out attacks on coalition forces and urged residents to register for the squads starting today.
Despite the fighting, Sheik al-Sadr delivered a sermon at Friday prayers in Kufa, another holy city that lies six miles to the northeast of Najaf, as he has for the past four Fridays.