Al-Sadr dangles keys to shrine

Followers loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Friday they were prepared to hand control of the revered Imam Ali Shrine to top Shi’ite religious authorities in a bid to end a two-week-old uprising in the holy city of Najaf.

Al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said he was on his way to the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, to offer to present officials there with keys to the shrine. If they agree—which is not a certainty—the shrine could be handed over later on Friday, he said.

“We don’t want to appease the government ... we want to appease the Iraqi people,” he said.

The city appeared far quieter on Friday than it has in weeks.

United States tanks were on the streets, but residents reported seeing some of al-Sadr’s Mehdi army militia pulling out of the Old City.

The Imam Ali Shrine compound, which had been filled with hundreds of chanting and bellicose gunmen in recent days, appeared far calmer on Friday.
Video images of the compound and its outskirts, shown on the pan-Arab station al-Jazeera, revealed far fewer people inside and no armed men. One sandbagged gun position outside the shrine was abandoned.

Explosions and gunbattles raged in Najaf all day on Thursday, intensifying hours after US forces bombed militant positions and Iraq’s prime minister made a “final call” for the cleric’s militia to surrender.

US marine Captain Carrie Batson said US warplanes had been “clearing Moqtada militia positions” east of the revered Imam Ali Shrine on Thursday night, when at least 30 explosions shook the Old City. Before dawn on Friday, US forces also fired precision-guided bombs at militiamen who were firing mortars at US troops in the neighbouring cemetery and Old City, Batson said.

Earlier on Thursday, militants bombarded a Najaf police station with mortar rounds, killing seven police and injuring 35 others. Another round hit near the same station on Friday, but inflicted no casualties.

In Baghdad, troops from the US Army’s First Cavalry Division pulled out of the Sadr City slum, scene of fierce fighting the day before between US forces and supporters of the rebel cleric.

US Captain Brian O’Malley said soldiers “went all the way through the city and back” but pulled out on Friday to respect the Muslim Sabbath.

Militants said five fighters and five civilians were killed on Friday during the clashes in Sadr City. The health ministry said 10 people were killed and 79 were injured.

In Fallujah, US warplanes launched two airstrikes on Friday on the troubled Iraqi city, considered a hotbed of Sunni Muslim insurgents. Two people were killed and six injured in the first attack just after midnight, said Dia’a al-Jumeili, a doctor at Fallujah’s main hospital.

A second warplane fired at least one missile into an industrial area of the city later on Friday morning. It exploded in a field, leaving a crater and spraying shrapnel across the doors of nearby automobile shops, but causing no serious damage.

Shrapnel from the second blast also hit an ice cream factory, wounding three people, said Adel Khamis, another doctor at Fallujah General hospital.

US forces have routinely bombed targets in the city it says are insurgent safehouses or strongholds. Fallujah is located about 65km west of Baghdad.

Elsewhere in Iraq, militants attacked oil facilities in the north and south, fired mortars at US embassy offices in the capital, injuring one American, and threatened to kill two hostages, a Turkish worker and a US journalist.

In a speech, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had warned the radical cleric to disarm his forces and withdraw from the shrine after his government threatened to send a massive Iraqi force to root them out.

Defying that ultimatum, al-Sadr sent a telephone text message vowing to seek “martyrdom or victory,” and his jubilant followers inside the shrine danced and chanted.

Later in the day, a top al-Sadr aide said the cleric had ordered his militia to turn over control of the shrine where they have been holed up for two weeks fighting Iraqi and US forces to turn over control of the site to top Shi’ite clerics. But in a letter shown by the Arab television station al-Arabiya, al-Sadr said he would not disband his al Mehdi Army.

Al-Sadr has said in recent days he wanted to make sure the shrine was in the custody of religious authorities, though it was unclear if the government would agree to that.

The violence in the holy city between the insurgents and a combined US-Iraqi force has angered many in Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and proven a major challenge to Allawi’s fledgling interim government as it tries to build credibility and prove it is not a US puppet.

Any raid to oust militants from the Imam Ali shrine—especially one that damaged the holy site—could spark a far larger Shi’ite uprising. Government accusations that militants have mined the shrine compound and reports that women and children were among those inside could further complicate a raid.

Some of those in the compound were “dancing and cheering,” a CNN journalist reported from inside the shrine, where she was among journalists escorted there with help from the Iraqi government, the US military and al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army.

“They are all very proud to be in here and seem to be very adamant about staying in here,” CNN reporter Kianne Sadeq said.

“They aren’t going anywhere until the fighting is over.”

In the impoverished Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City—named for the cleric’s late father—US tanks moved throughout the streets and helicopter gunships shot at al-Sadr militants from the skies. The militants claimed five fighters and five civilians were killed.

There was no certainty that the latest offer from al-Sadr to withdraw would be implemented, as both sides appeared to be engaged in brinkmanship.

Thursday’s violence came a day after al-Sadr had accepted an Iraqi delegation’s peace plan for Najaf, demanding he disarm his militia, leave the shrine and turn to politics in exchange for amnesty. But he continued to attach conditions the government rejected, and fighting persisted.

Reiterating his government’s refusal to negotiate with the armed militants, Allawi had called on al-Sadr to personally accept the government’s demands to end the Najaf fighting—not through aides or letters as he has been communicating so far.

“When we hear from him and that he is committed to execute these conditions we will ... give him and his group protection,” the prime minister said in a Baghdad news conference.

An al-Sadr representative in Baghdad, Abdel-Hadi al-Darraji, warned that fighting in Najaf could “ignite a revolution all over Iraq.”

“We welcome any initiative to stop the bloodbath in Najaf,” he told Al-Arabiya television. “Otherwise the battle will move to Baghdad, Amarah, Basra and anywhere in Iraq.”

Hoping to undermine efforts to stabilize and rebuild after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, militants have frequently attacked Iraq’s essential oil industry. Al-Sadr fighters on Thursday broke into the headquarters of Iraq’s South Oil company near the southern city of Basra and set the company’s warehouses and offices on fire, witnesses said. - Sapa-AP

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