Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reportedly ordered his fighters to hand control of the revered shrine -- one of the holiest sites in Shi'a Islam -- to top religious authorities, but refused to disband his Imam Al-Mahdi Army and join the Iraqi political process.
The attacks on Al-Najaf came after al-Sadr rejected an Iraqi government ultimatum yesterday to disarm his fighters and leave the shrine -- or else be rooted out by Iraqi forces.
The aerial assault on Al-Najaf eased as dawn broke today, but in Al-Fallujah, some 65 kilometers west of Baghdad, U.S. forces attacked insurgent positions overnight and early this morning. Hospital sources say at least five people were killed and six others wounded in the Sunni stronghold, a hotbed of anti-U.S. militants.
Meanwhile, fighters loyal to al-Sadr fought U.S. forces in the streets of the Baghdad slum called Al-Sadr City, named for Muqtada al-Sadr's late father, a top Shi'a cleric.
A U.S. Army engineer, Captain Denis Pitdorn, spoke to Reuters about the operation. "Right now, the coalition is conducting operations against the illegal militia of Muqtada al-Sadr here in Sadr City," he said. "This is to restore essential government services back to the people of Sadr City and so they can return to a sense of normalcy, without retribution from the illegal militia."
Al-Sadr's apparent defiance of the ultimatum is raising the stakes in the drama and seems to give Allawi's government little choice but to follow through on its threat to end the two-week standoff by force. But such a move could spark outrage from the country's majority Shi'a population, especially if U.S. forces take part. A flash point could be midday prayers today, which last week triggered mass protests against Allawi across Iraq.
Reports say the mood in both Al-Najaf and Al-Sadr City is defiant, with militants pledging their readiness to fight to the death. Muhammad Abdullah, one of 2 million residents of Al-Sadr City, said today: "We reject the entry and the presence of the Americans. We used to reject the presence of the Ba'athists in the city, so how can we accept the foreigners, the occupiers? The Americans have a tank on every corner."
Meanwhile, suspected al-Sadr followers set fire to the headquarters of Iraq's South Oil Company in the port city of Al-Basrah. A spokesman for the company said: "It was not an accident. The fire is huge."
(compiled from wire and staff reports)
Factbox: Iraq's Holy City of Al-Najaf
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