Skip to comments.U.S. Says Its Grip on Iraqi Militia in Najaf Is Tight
Posted on 08/10/2004 3:28:52 AM PDT by LibWhacker
NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 9 - American forces besieging militiamen of a rebel cleric in a shrine and cemetery sacred to Shiite Muslims tightened their cordon on Monday, United States military officials in Baghdad said, and they warned the rebels that they could not receive any outside support. But the warnings drew an immediate riposte from the cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, who emerged from days of silence to reject demands for the militiamen to surrender.
"I will defend Najaf until the last drop of my blood," Mr. Sadr said at a news conference in the Imam Ali shrine, which has served as a stronghold for his Mahdi Army since his uprising in the spring against the foreign occupation of Iraq.
The repercussions of the latest fighting, which began in Najaf last week and quickly spread to other centers of support for Mr. Sadr, intensified when officials of the state-owned oil industry said Iraq's largest oil fields, in the southern region around Basra, had stopped pumping oil on Monday after Mr. Sadr's militiamen had threatened to attack oil fields, refineries and pipelines. About 1.8 million barrels a day, 90 percent of Iraq's oil exports, are shipped from terminals in and near Basra.
While senior American military officials in Baghdad appeared confident that they had Mr. Sadr's forces in Najaf contained, officers and soldiers on the front line painted a different picture. They said that rebels move freely between the cemetery and Najaf's old city, and that American forces do not fully control the cemetery, which is three miles long and two miles wide.
In Baghdad, American military officials announced a curfew of 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. in the capital's Sadr City neighborhood, home to more than a million Shiites and, with Najaf, a center of support for Mr. Sadr. The measure, the most stringent of its kind in the 16 months since the country fell to the American-led invasion, appeared to be aimed at regaining some control over Sadr City from Mr. Sadr's militiamen and preventing the area from being used for rocket and mortar attacks on the American military and civil headquarters. Despite the curfew, rebels resumed their shelling on Monday night.
In Najaf, Mr. Sadr used his news conference to shred efforts by Iraq's American-appointed prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to lure the cleric away from armed confrontation. Over the weekend, Dr. Allawi invited Mr. Sadr to contest parliamentary elections scheduled to take place by the end of January, and suggested that the militiamen who have fought in Najaf and other cities might not be under his control. His suggestion was echoed by American military spokesmen. Brushing aside the fact that most of the rebels in Najaf, Nasiriya, Basra and Sadr City, the areas worst affected by the fighting, have worn the black trousers and shirts of Mr. Sadr's militia, the Americans have said repeatedly during the five days of renewed fighting that they, too, had doubts that the cleric was the instigator of the violence.
But some American military officers have said that this presentation of the situation was a convenient fiction, propagated by the Allawi government and the American command to allow their forces to hunt down as many of Mr. Sadr's fighters as possible while exempting Mr. Sadr from any deliberate attack.
During the uprising by Mr. Sadr's forces in April, American commanders said they intended to kill or capture him, but that threat was dropped out of fear that any harm to the cleric could touch off a still wider conflagration among Iraq's majority Shiite population.
In any case, Mr. Sadr himself exploded any pretense that he was not the leader of the current fighting with his defiant posture at the news conference on Monday. Appearing in the mosque, only a few hundred yards from the closest American troops, he effectively mocked the Americans and the cordon they have thrown around the shrine. "I am an enemy of America, and America is my enemy until the last day of judgment," he said.
As for taking part in elections, he was similarly scornful. "The occupiers must go, and then the democratic process can start in Iraq," he said. "I will stay here to support the fighters, and I call on all religious dignitaries to do the same."
As for Dr. Allawi, Mr. Sadr said the Baghdad government should be "on the side of the people and not use the same weapons as Saddam Hussein."
The reference to Mr. Hussein appeared to refer to some of the tough policies adopted by Dr. Allawi in an effort to quell the insurgency and broaden his government's tenuous popular support. On Sunday, the prime minister visited Najaf and vowed that there would be "no negotiations" with the Sadr militiamen in Najaf, then returned to Baghdad and said his government was restoring the death penalty for a range of crimes that appeared to cover almost any insurgent activity.
Mr. Sadr's defiance posed a seemingly insoluble quandary for the American command, similar to the one it faced when Mr. Sadr's fighters seized control of Najaf in April. Then, the United States commanders settled for a shaky truce that kept American forces on the outskirts of the city in return for Mr. Sadr's promise that his fighters would disarm and hand control of the city back to Iraqi authorities. The deal was similar to one made in the Sunni Muslim city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, and provided a template for a wider American policy that effectively kept United States forces out of cities with a strong rebel presence, with the hope of lowering American casualties and providing breathing space for political negotiations.
The terms of the Najaf truce were never fully put in place, and Mr. Sadr's fighters continued to control large parts of the city. Then, last Thursday, after increasingly bloody clashes around the city's government buildings, and an incident in which Iraqi units surrounded Mr. Sadr's headquarters, the cease-fire imploded. The United States command said Mr. Sadr's men attacked a police station, prompting the Najaf governor to call in help from an American quick-reaction force.
Now, American commanders in Najaf are essentially back where they were in the spring, but with their forces even deeper inside the city. The difference is that an Iraqi government has replaced the American occupation authority, and American commanders are saying that their actions will be decided by that government. In practice, though, any American assault that further endangered the holy sites, even if Dr. Allawi approved it, would pose big political risks.
The new political situation has so far emboldened the Americans that units of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit and the Army's Fifth Cavalry Division have battled for the past days in and around the huge cemetery that has been used for a millennium by devout Shiites eager to rest in eternity near the shrine and burial place of Imam Ali, the most sacred figure in Shiite Islam. Spokesmen for the United States command say they have explicit authority from Dr. Allawi to enter the cemetery, where they claim to have killed more than 360 rebel fighters, and to advance on the shrine itself, if that proves necessary to dislodge the rebels.
A senior military official told reporters in Baghdad on Monday that the command would wait a few days to see how the rebels responded to their situation in the area of the mosque.
But he also hinted that an assault on the shrine had not been ruled out. "At the moment we are not conducting operations in that area, but we are ready to do so at a moment's notice," he said.
The spokesman laid down a possible rationale for an assault, saying that the rebels had used the shrine and the cemetery to stockpile arms and ammunition, and were fighting from behind tombs and headstones. All of this, the spokesman said, stripped the shrine of protection under the Geneva Conventions. "The use of that site makes it a legitimate target under international law," he said.
At an American base on the outskirts of Najaf, American troops appeared to be preparing for a renewed assault into the city. Army and Marine planners said they were examining ways of using Iraqi forces to clear the rebels from the shrine.
The command in Baghdad said that cumulative American losses in the fighting by noon Monday included 4 killed, and 19 wounded.
The ripple effects of the fighting in Sadr City and Najaf continued to be felt in other Shiite cities, particularly Basra, which was relatively quiet in the months when Baghdad and other cities were roiled by the insurgency. British units engaged in running gun battles with Sadr fighters on Monday. A British spokesman said one British soldier had been killed, The Associated Press reported.
"I will defend Najaf until the last drop of my blood," Mr. Sadr said...
I hope the 11th MEU and the Fifth Cav provide him with just that opportunity post haste.
WHOA!!! . . . Most beeee-UUU-tee-ful angel wings I've seen, thanks! Bookmarked! Saved to hard disk, etc.! :-)
Do you have another source? The publisher, my boss, will not allow the nyt to be used as a source for CHRISTIAN-NEWS-IN-MAINE.COM
Same source, though, ultimately.
He is not really referring to his blood. He really means the last drop of the idiots that follow him's blood.
Spill Al Sadr's blood... Let if flow! Let it flow!
I hate to be blood thirsty, but if he lives for too long he'll just become another Arafat. Of course if we kill him too soon, he becomes a major martyr. So perhaps we should continue to let his militia kill Iraqi's until he pisses them off. Then we kill him.
There are only about a million hiding places.
You see that space between the two lines/roads.
Bulldoze it...there'll be a lot less places to hide.
Is this guy hiding in the shrine?
This is exactly what I've been fretting about. Obviously, we cannot allow another Arafat to rise up in the Mid-East. We have to "put him down," now. If it makes him a martyr, so what? There are a thousand martyrs over there, most forgotten.
LOL, can't argue with that! Nuke it as far as I'm concerned! I wouldn't want my kid to die fighting to take that little piece of hell.
Thanx for posting that pic! What a horrendous place to engage in. Napalm would work well, but not PC. Perhaps CS gas? Boy, wouldn't THAT ignite the lefties!
Exactly! I know he's been keeping his head down. But no one can convince me our boys haven't had him in their crosshairs a few times during the last few months.