Iraq’s United States-backed caretaker government cried victory on Friday in its 19-day standoff with Shi’ite Muslim militiamen in Najaf, but on the ground rebel fighters remained firmly in control of their stronghold in the city’s holiest shrine.
Despite protestations from the Interior Ministry that police had taken control of the Imam Ali Shrine and detained several hundred militiamen loyal to Shi’ite radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr, an AFP correspondent in the shrine said he had not seen a single policeman.
On the contrary, he said fighting continued to rage on the south side of the Old City between the militiamen and US-backed forces that have surrounded the shrine compound.
A US defence official on Friday also denied the claims.
“Not a lick of truth to it,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We are still outside of the shrine, and so are the Iraqi police.”
The government claims of victory came amid talk of a face-saving deal brokered by the Shi’ite religious hierarchy under which the militiamen were to hand over control of the compound to its representatives.
An al-Sadr spokesperson said the radical leader had agreed to pull his fighters out of the compound after handing over the keys under an agreement with revered cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
“We went to Sistani’s office this morning to agree on giving up the keys to the mausoleum. His office called Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in London, who agreed to take the keys,” Sheikh Ahmed al-Shaibani said.
“The visitors, human shields and militiamen will then leave the shrine,” he added.
But the spokesperson gave no timeframe for implementing the agreement, so it was unclear why government officials in Baghdad had so wildly overstated the situation on the ground.
“Iraqi police entered the shrine in Najaf city and all armed militia were evicted,” a government ministry spokesperson had announced in Baghdad.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Sabah Kadhim, too, said police were in control of the compound.
“The Iraqi police entered the mosque to discover 500 men with light arms who were prepared to surrender,” he told CNN. “We, in cooperation with the appropriate religious authorities, were able to restore control without any fight and help the people inside.”
The spokesperson said he had no idea of the whereabouts of al-Sadr himself although he appealed to the radical leader to turn himself in so that he could benefit from a government amnesty and join the political mainstream.
“It’s possible that he may have escaped overnight,” Kadhim said. “We ask him and his assistants to surrender, in order to be covered by the amnesty and also if he wants to enter the political arena.”
National Security Adviser Muaffaq al-Rubaei later acknowledged to CNN: “The situation is not terribly clear now. The telephone line is not clear.”
One of al-Sadr’s aides said on Friday the cleric is still in Najaf and will not leave it alive.
“Sayyed Moqtada Sadr is a son of Najaf and leader of the Mehdi Army [militia] in Najaf. He will not leave Najaf except [through] martyrdom,” Sheikh Ahmed al-Shaibani told Al-Jazeera television.
Oil markets affected badly
The uncertainty in Najaf did nothing to help nervous world oil markets. New York’s main contract soared in opening trade to a record $49,40 a barrel.
The benchmark contract, light sweet crude for delivery in September, surged 70 cents to $49,40 a barrel within five minutes of the start of official trade.
In the main southern city of Basra, the British military said the number of security guards around key oil infrastructure has been stepped up after the Mehdi Army torched the offices and warehouses of the South Oil Company.
“The fire at the South Oil Company has been dealt with and there is no effect on oil production. The number of security guards around the oil infrastructure has also been increased,” a spokesperson said.
In the capital’s main Shi’ite neighbourhood of Sadr City, the US military said a three-day offensive is continuing in conjunction with Iraqi security personnel.
The Health Ministry said 10 people had been killed and 79 wounded in the 24 hours to Friday morning. Two US soldiers have been killed and another two wounded since the operation began on Wednesday.
Air strike on Fallujah
West of Baghdad, two Iraqis were killed and 11 others wounded, including three women and a child, in a double US air strike on the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, a doctor said.
Both strikes, one overnight and one on Friday morning, pounded the city’s industrial zone, said a doctor at the Fallujah general hospital.
A local pipeline linking the main northern Iraqi oilfields of Kirkuk to the Baiji refinery was also damaged when a makeshift bomb exploded, hampering oil distribution, said a fire fighter attached to the North Oil Company. — AFP