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Al-Najaf Fighting Raises Concerns Of Shi'a Uprising

10 August 2004 -- Fighting continued for a sixth consecutive day today in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Najaf, where U.S. forces have battled militiamen loyal to radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The battle poses a dilemma for the interim government and is raising concerns about a wave of unrest spreading to other Shi'a cities in southern Iraq.

An intense morning battle in central Al-Najaf today followed a night of intermittent clashes between U.S. troops and Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia fighters near the holy city's large ancient cemetery.

It is the sixth consecutive day of fighting in Al-Najaf between U.S. forces and militiamen loyal to radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

A one-day truce was called late yesterday. U.S. military vehicles used loudspeakers this morning to announce the truce had collapsed: "Leave peacefully. There is no truce with the armed elements. We call for all people to cooperate with police and the Iraqi army and evacuate these areas."

Al-Sadr defied demands yesterday from Iraq's interim government for his militia fighters to withdraw from Al-Najaf, saying that he will fight until his "last drop of blood is spilled."

An unidentified Al-Mahdi Army fighter claiming to be from England told a Reuters correspondent in Al-Najaf that Shi'a Muslims from across Europe are joining the battle.

"We want to send a message to the American and the coalition forces. We want to tell them that we came all the way from Europe and there are plenty of guys that are going to be joining us soon, God willing. We came here to join the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, and we came here to give our lives, and there are plenty of men who are going to be coming. So, it's a warning to them, from us, that we are going to give our lives all the way. And we are going to bomb them all the way," the militia member said.

The battle is the fiercest fighting seen in Iraq in months, and presents a dilemma for the newly installed interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Failure to impose order in Al-Najaf could weaken Allawi's credibility with Iraqis who want a firm government that can bring security.

But a full-scale attack in Al-Najaf by U.S. and Iraqi forces could prove even more damaging. There are fears the fighting could damage holy sites like the Imam Ali Shrine, or cause widespread civilian casualties. That, in turn, could spark a broad Shi'a backlash elsewhere in Iraq.

Days of clashes have also been reported in Baghdad's impoverished Shi'a suburb of Al-Sadr City. U.S. tanks, backed by troops from the Iraqi national guard, advanced on the area today following a morning gun battle.

Iraq's Health Ministry said 10 people have been killed and 104 injured in clashes around Baghdad since yesterday. There were no official casualty tolls from Al-Najaf. But U.S. commanders claim to have killed 360 Al-Mahdi Army fighters there during the past week.

The radical Shi'a uprising has left several Shi'a cities virtually closed. In the southern port city of Al-Basrah, limited amounts of oil were being loaded onto export tankers today after Shi'a militia fighters attacked a pipeline, forcing its closure yesterday.

Iraqi officials say the damage was minor and export operations should be fully restored by tomorrow.

(compiled from agency reports)

For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".