12 August 2004 -- U.S. soldiers backed by tanks and aircraft have sealed off Al-Najaf's vast cemetery and seized the center of the holy city in a major assault on militants loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim al-Shalan said the assault will continue until al-Sadr's militia is forced out of the city or surrenders.
Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi urged the militiamen to lay down their arms and leave the city and the Imam Ali Mosque compound. The U.S. military also raided al-Sadr's empty house in Al-Najaf and bombed al-Sadr forces in the city of Al-Kut today. But U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Jim Rainey said soldiers have kept away from the sacred shrine where many militiamen are barricaded.
"We are in the process of conducting military operations in the area of Najaf, being very careful to stay away from the mosque area, definitely not going to do any damage there," he said. "We're using a lot of restrain in our operations but the reason we are here is because the governor of Najaf has asked for our help to restore law and order and control to the rightful Iraqi government."
But the assault has ignited clashes and protests in numerous other Iraqi cities, including a demonstration by 10,000 in support of the insurgents in Al-Basrah. Several Middle Eastern states and Iran expressed concern over the military offensive. And world oil prices hit another all-time high on the New York and London markets amid news of the heavy fighting.