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Sensitivity Grows Over Confrontations in Iraq's Al-Najaf

13 August 2004 -- The situation in the Iraqi holy city is growing continually more sensitive as U.S. and Iraqi forces battle fighters loyal to Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Shi'ites revere Al-Najaf and the mosque as holy sites and the fighting has set off protests in other Iraqi cities and has drawn criticism from Muslim leaders in other countries.

In fighting yesterday, U.S. forces captured the city center and stormed Al-Sadr's home, which they found empty. The troops skirted the Imam Ali Mosque, where fighters of Al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army are encamped.

Aides of combative Iraqi cleric al-Sadr say that the Shi'a leader was injured slightly during an assault on Al-Najaf by U.S. forces. Al-Sadr has repeatedly urged his followers to continue their resistance even if he is captured or killed.

Al-Najaf is the locale of the shrine of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin who lived in the Western calendar's seventh century. It also is the locale of one of the world's largest cemeteries -- 13 square kilometers -- where Shi'a Muslims consider it a sacred privilege to be buried. For two centuries before Saddam Hussein's rule, Al-Najaf was regarded also as an Islamic center for scientific and theological studies.

This is the city that thousands of U.S.-led troops have placed under siege and that fighters of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mehdi Army have occupied for several months.

After a week of clashes, the U.S. Army's 7th Calvary Regiment, U.S. Marines, Special Forces, and Iraqi commandos launched a heavy attack yesterday with infantry, tanks, and helicopters. U.S. commanders and the Iraqi government issued assurances that they would not carry the fighting into the holy shrine itself. But Al-Mahdi Army sympathizers mounted offensives in several other Iraqi cities in response.

An al-Sadr aide in Baghdad, Sheikh Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji, called yesterday for Iraqis to join in protecting the shrine. "I call on all Iraqi people to walk peacefully on al-Najaf, to surround it, and form a human shield to save the Imam Ali Shrine," he said.

In Baghdad today, demonstrators protested in front of Iraqi government headquarters.

Reports had circulated early today that al-Sadr himself had been slightly wounded in a bombardment. He has repeatedly urged his followers to continue their resistance even if he is killed.

An unidentified demonstrator wearing a mask called out: "The wounds of Sayyid [leader] al-Sadr are an honor to us and a boost to our jihad. And the martyrdom of the sayyid will only intensify the spark of the uprising. Since morning, Al-Sadr City is ready for sacrifice. It is a great honor for us that al-Sadr is wounded instead of sitting on the chair of power."

But Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib said today that al-Sadr is unhurt and is negotiating with the interim government about leaving the shrine. Reuters news agency quoted al-Naqib as saying that a truce is in force and that al-Sadr will not be harmed if he leaves peacefully.

A number of Middle Eastern states and Iran have urged suspension of hostilities in Al-Najaf. Egypt advocated dialogue. Iran called for the world to intervene. From Lebanon, a leading Shi'a cleric warned of what he called "serious repercussions" if holy sites were desecrated.

Iraqi militants in the southern city of Al-Basrah said today that they have abducted a British reporter, identified as James Brandon of "The Sunday Telegraph." They threatened to kill him if U.S. forces do not pull out of Al-Najaf within 24 hours.

The newspaper confirmed that Brandon has been in Al-Basrah. A spokeswoman for the newspaper said its management is treating the situation with what she called "the greatest concern."

Militants in Iraq have waged a campaign of scores of abductions aimed at driving out individuals, companies, and foreign military units supporting U.S.-led forces and the new Iraqi interim administration. The abductors have released some hostages but have killed at least nine.

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