Helicopters pound Najaf cemetery

Helicopter gunships opened fire on Shi’ite militants hiding in Najaf’s massive cemetery on Tuesday as United States patrols armed with speakers warned the militants to leave the city immediately or face death.

US tanks drove into the cemetery, explosions shook the streets and black smoke rose over parts of the city, but the fighting with militant Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia appeared more sporadic than in recent days.

A large fire broke out at a hotel about 300m from the Imam Ali Shrine, Najaf’s holiest site, which fighters have reportedly been using as a base. Witnesses said insurgents were firing from inside the hotel, when US forces returned fire.

New tactic to stop violence

In a new tactic to try to quell the violence, US military vehicles equipped with loudspeakers drove through the streets warning residents to stay away from the fighting and for militants to put down their weapons and leave Najaf or else they would be killed.

“We ask residents to cooperate with the Iraqi army and police,” said a voice in Arabic through a loudspeaker. “There will be no truce or negotiations with terrorists.”

Small clashes also broke out in the Baghdad Shi’ite neighbourhood of Sadr City, despite a nighttime curfew that was imposed on Monday.

Mehdi Army militants have been targeting US patrols with gunfire and they have tried to set up roadblocks in the neighbourhood, but US forces tore them down, said US Captain Brian O’Malley of the First Brigade Combat Team.
There were no US casualties, he said.

Sunni Muslim attacks persist

While US and Iraqi forces were trying to quell the eruption of Shi’ite violence, attacks by Sunni Muslim militants persisted.

A roadside bomb detonated as a US military vehicle drove on a street in central Baghdad on Tuesday, slightly injuring two soldiers, the military said. On Monday a suicide car bombing targeting a deputy governor killed six people and a roadside bomb hit a bus, killing four passengers.

Another insurgent group also warned in a videotaped message it would launch a campaign of attacks on government offices in Baghdad starting on Tuesday, telling employees to stay away.

The sixth day of Shi’ite violence came after al-Sadr warned on Monday that he will fight “until the last drop of my blood has been spilled”.

The uprising began to affect Iraq’s crucial oil industry, as pumping to the southern port of Basra—the country’s main export outlet—was halted because of militant threats to infrastructure, an official with the South Oil Company said on Monday.

About 1,8-million barrels per day, or 90% of Iraq’s exports, move through Basra, and any shutdown in the flow of Iraq’s main money earner will badly hamper reconstruction efforts. Iraq’s other export line—from the north to Turkey—is already out of operation.

Clashes intensified around Basra where a British soldier was killed and several others wounded in fighting with militia near the cleric’s office on Monday, the British Ministry of Defence said. Three militants were killed and more than 10 others wounded, a senior Iraqi police official said.

US President George Bush said on Monday that coalition forces are “making pretty good progress about stabilising Najaf”.

Shrine may be targeted by US

Much of the fighting in Najaf remained centred on the vast cemetery near the Imam Ali Shrine. The US military said Mehdi Army gunmen were launching attacks from the cemetery and then running to take refuge in the shrine compound, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam.

Najaf governor Adnan al-Zarfi gave US forces approval to enter the shrine, a senior US military official said on Monday.

“We have elected at this point not to conduct operations there, although we are prepared to do so at a moment’s notice,” the official said.

Such an offensive will almost certainly cause widespread outrage among the nation’s Shi’ite majority and further exacerbate the crisis.

The military official estimated that 360 insurgents were killed between Thursday, when fighting began, and Sunday night, a figure the militants dispute. Five US troops have been killed in the fighting. About 20 police also have been killed, Najaf police chief Brigadier Ghalib al-Jazaari said.

Truces shattered

The fighting has shattered a series of delicate truces worked out two months ago that ended the Mehdi Army’s first uprising, which broke out in April. During that period, US commanders vowed to “capture or kill” al-Sadr, but later tacitly agreed to let Iraqi authorities deal with the cleric.

US forces were apparently continuing the hands-off policy toward al-Sadr. The senior US military officer in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the cleric “is not an objective; we are not actively pursuing him”.

But the fighting has complicated the security situation for Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s government as it tries to take a tough stance against the mainly Sunni campaign of attacks, bombings and shootings that has been plaguing Iraq for the past 15 months.

In a sign of the deterioration of the situation in Najaf, the Polish military returned command in the province and neighbouring Qadisiyah province to the US marines. The Poles had received command in the two provinces only 10 days ago.

Mehdi Army militiamen in Baghdad also kidnapped a senior Iraqi policeman, Brigadier Raed Mohammed Khudair, who is responsible for all police patrols in eastern Baghdad, said Colonel Adnan Abdel Rahman, an Interior Ministry spokesperson. In a video broadcast on the pan-Arab network Al-Jazeera, militants said the government should release all Mehdi Army prisoners in exchange for Khudair.

Militants have been waging a violent campaign of car bombings, attacks and kidnappings in an effort to force coalition troops out of the country.

Jordanian businessman Jamal Sadeq al-Salaymeh was taken hostage in Baghdad on Monday by kidnappers demanding $250 000 in ransom, the official Petra news agency said on Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, Lebanese businessman Antoine Antoun was freed after about a week in captivity in Iraq, said his father, Robert.—Sapa-AP

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