Tuesday, May 25, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — One of the most sacred shrines of Shi’ite Islam suffered minor damage during clashes yesterday between U.S. forces and militiamen that killed at least 13 Iraqis, some of them civilians. It was not clear who was responsible for the shrine damage.

In Baghdad, a car bomb near a hotel wounded at least five Iraqis, the U.S. military said. The target of the blast, about 100 yards from the Australian Embassy, was not immediately clear. U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber.

Later yesterday, insurgents fired rockets from an apartment house toward a police station in central Baghdad, triggering huge explosions and wounding one American soldier, witnesses and officials said.

After the fighting in Najaf eased, people gathered at the Imam Ali shrine to look at the damage. The inner gate of the shrine, leading into the tomb of Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib, appeared to have been hit by a projectile. Debris was scattered on the ground.

Al Jazeera television showed a torn veil covering the gate, and damage on the wall around it. It also showed several injured people lying on the floor of the mosque compound, and an angry crowd of more than 100 others shouting and shaking their fists.

Supporters of Shi’ite militia leader Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr accused the Americans of firing mortars at the mosque, and said 12 persons were injured in the mosque compound. In Baghdad, Gen. Kimmitt told Al Jazeera that the shell that fell on the shrine was not American and was not fired by coalition forces.

Another projectile landed outside the shrine, about 10 yards away from the outer wall. Three militiamen were injured in that attack, and three were killed in fighting in the city, Sheik al-Sadr’s office said.

Imam Ali was the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and he is the most revered saint among Shi’ite Muslims.

U.S. officials say they have been careful to avoid damaging the shrines and have accused Sheik al-Sadr of using holy places to store weapons and seek sanctuary.

Sheik al-Sadr launched his uprising in early April after the U.S.-led occupation authority cracked down on him, closing his newspaper, arresting a key aide and announcing a warrant against the young cleric in the 2003 killing of a moderate religious leader.

In Baghdad, police said they believed the car bomb may have targeted the Australian Embassy, and that it detonated prematurely. The Australian government said its troops were still investigating.

Australia sent 2,000 troops to take part in the invasion of Iraq and still has 850 military personnel in and around the country.

U.S. Army Col. Mike Murray said five Iraqis were injured, including a 10-year-old boy who was critically hurt. Windows in some nearby buildings were shattered.

Also yesterday, saboteurs detonated explosives at a bridge in the town of Numaniya, destroying part of it and disrupting traffic. Witnesses said coalition forces had often used the bridge southeast of Baghdad. Ukrainian and Polish troops, who are based in the area, rushed to the scene.

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