Gunmen seize Iraq police station

Shi’ite gunmen seized an Iraq police station in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf and held it for two hours on Thursday in the first outbreak of fighting since an agreement to end weeks of bloody clashes between United States troops and militia forces. Four Iraqis were killed and 13 were injured, hospital and militia officials said.

As violence continued before Iraq authorities prepared for the handover of power, Iraq’s interim prime minister sought to shore up internal political support by promising to honour the interim Constitution.

Chaos swept the southern city of Najaf after gunmen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr overran the Ghari police station, which is 250m from the Imam Ali Shrine, witnesses said. The station was looted and police cars were burned.

”We sent a quick reaction unit to assist the policemen defending the station, but they were overwhelmed by al-Sadr fighters,” said Najaf Governor Adnan al-Zurufi. ”We will solve this problem as soon as possible. We will ask for the help of the Americans, if necessary.”

Hours later, al-Sadr’s forces withdrew, and disappeared from the city’s streets. Rioters looted the cars that had been attacked outside the station. One man shot into the air to restore order. He failed.

Meanwhile, fighting ebbed on Thursday around the main police station, which came under fire on Wednesday night when the attacks began.

US forces were not involved in the clashes, and it was unclear whether the violence marked the end of the ceasefire in Najaf, mediated by Shi’ite leaders and al-Sadr’s militia, or resulted from police attempts to crack down on petty crime in the city.

Police and witnesses said trouble started when authorities tried to arrest some suspected thieves at the bus station near the main police headquarters. Masked attackers, possibly including some of al-Sadr’s militia, responded with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades near the headquarters building.

One gunman was killed when police returned fire, al-Sadr’s spokesperson Qais al-Khazali said. The slain man’s armed relatives attacked the headquarters again on Thursday in revenge, he said.

Fighting later moved to the second station.

”We are trying to convince them to stop shooting,” al-Khazali said. ”We are still committed to the truce.”

Two of the four dead were al-Mahdi fighters, and several others were injured, al-Khazali said.

Last week, al-Sadr agreed to send his fighters home and pull back from the Islamic shrines in Najaf and its twin city of Kufa, handing over security to Iraqi police. The US army also agreed to stay away from the holy sites to give Iraqi security forces a chance to end the standoff.

The clashes illustrate the chaotic situation in Iraq as the US military begins phasing down its operations ahead of the transfer of sovereignty in June.

One senior US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said coalition forces will not leave the streets immediately after June 30 but will phase out their presence as Iraqi security troops gradually take control.

”There is a difference between the abrupt handover of sovereignty that will be done on the political side, to the gradual handover of the Iraqi security,” the senior official said. ”We have taken a bottoms-up approach since day one in training up the Iraqi security forces … We are concentrating now on the higher-level staff.”

Iraq’s interim authorities took steps on Thursday to reassure Kurdish members of their government, who have threatened to walk out of the government because the United Nations Security Council resolution dealing with the transfer of sovereignty failed to include an endorsement of the interim Constitution — known as the transitional administrative law.

The Kurds fear they will be sidelined politically by the Shi’ite Arab majority, despite assurances from Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and others that the new government will stick by its commitments for communal rights.

UN diplomats said the decision was made to keep a reference to the interim Constitution — the transitional administrative law — out of the resolution to appease Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who grudgingly accepted the charter when it was approved in March.

In an attempt to head off trouble, Allawi’s spokesperson, Gorgues Hermez Sada, tried to make it clear that the interim government intends to honour the interim Constitution set up by the former governing council during the time Iraq makes the transition to elections, expected next year.

”The Iraq interim government announced its adherence to this law during the transitional period,” Sada said.

Hoping to avert domestic pressure in the transition period, Allawi on Thursday appealed to the public to be vigilant against attacks on oil pipelines and electrical grids.

Allawi said saboteurs had set off 130 attacks on Iraqi oil pipelines in the past seven months and that more than $200-million has been ”stolen out of the pockets” of Iraqis.

”These saboteurs are not freedom fighters. They are terrorists and foreign fighters opposed to our very survival as a free state,” he said. ”Anyone involved in these attacks is nothing more than a traitor to the cause of Iraq’s freedom and the freedom of its people.”

Allawi’s comments follow a series of attacks against infrastructure targets — attempting to shake public confidence as a new Iraqi government prepares to take power June 30.

In the most recent attack, saboteurs blew up a key northern oil pipeline on Wednesday, forcing a 10% cut on the national power grid as demand for electricity rises with the advent of Iraq’s searing summer heat.

Coalition authorities have said that guaranteeing adequate electrical supplies are a benchmark of success in restoring normalcy here, but the crumbling infrastructure and sabotage have hampered efforts to eliminate power cuts, especially in Baghdad.

”It is our people that are sitting in the dark because of these cowardly and traitorous attacks, not our occupiers,” Allawi said. — Sapa-AP

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