Tuesday, August 17, 2004
17 August 2004
NAJAF, Iraq - Iraqi political and religious leaders trying to end a radical Shi’ite uprising flew into Najaf on Tuesday, where US troops and militia fought pitched battles near the country’s holiest Islamic sites. In Baghdad, insurgents fired a shell into a busy street, killing at least seven people including two children.
The new violence, especially the challenge from radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, highlighted the massive security headaches for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi barely seven weeks after he took over from US-led occupiers.
The eight-member delegation landed in Najaf on US military helicopters, hoping to persuade the firebrand cleric and his Mehdi Army militia to call off a rebellion that has hit eight southern and central cities and rattled oil markets.
Iraqis meeting at a national conference on Monday to pick an interim assembly agreed to send the team after Sadr’s weekend peace talks with the government collapsed and the cleric vowed to fight to the death from inside a sacred shrine.
“This is not a negotiation. This is a friendly mission to convey the message of the national conference,” delegation head Sheikh Hussein al-Sadr, a distant relative but political opponent of the cleric, told reporters at a military camp on the outskirts of Najaf.
“We want to change the Mehdi Army into a political organisation and to evacuate the Imam Ali shrine with the promise not to legally pursue those taking shelter there. This is what the government and all Iraqis want.”
As the delegation waited at the camp to be driven in civilian cars to the shrine, US troops fired some 20 artillery rounds at militia positions in the city.
The delegation had put off travelling by road to the southern city after insurgents threatened to ambush them.
Aides to the cleric who is the icon of Iraq’s downtrodden Shi’ite masses have said he welcomed the idea of sending the team but have not said whether he will meet the mission.
Speaking during a trip to Turkey, interim President Ghazi al-Yawar called on the militia to stop fighting.
“We in the government are very keen to save any drop of Iraqi blood ... We are still calling on these people to stop this nonsense and join the political process,” Yawar said.
VIOLENCE IN BAGHDAD
The attack in Baghdad’s bustling Rasheed street wounded 42 people, destroyed at least five cars and left pools of blood on sidewalks. Some officials said a roadside bomb caused the blast.
It followed a mortar attack near the fortified Green Zone compound where the political and religious leaders were meeting to select a 100-member interim national assembly. Officials said it was unclear if there were any casualties from that attack.
While the rebellion has undermined Allawi’s authority, he is walking a tightrope with passions in the majority Shi’ite country at boiling point over US troops fighting near Najaf’s sacred Imam Ali Mosque and a vast ancient cemetery.
Explosions echoed across the old city and thick smoke rose into the sky as US tanks and armoured vehicles took positions near the holy sites where Sadr’s militia are entrenched.
A Reuters photographer was wounded in the leg while covering the fighting. The photographer, an Iraqi, was treated for bullet fragment wounds at a US combat hospital and later released.
The national conference is expected to select the assembly later on Tuesday to oversee the interim government until January elections, but Najaf has dominated the three-day gathering.
Once appointed, the interim assembly will be able to veto legislation with a two-thirds majority, approve Iraq’s 2005 budget, and appoint a new prime minister or president should either resign or die in office.
Clashes also erupted overnight between the militia and US forces in a poor Shi’ite suburb in Baghdad called Sadr City.
The Health Ministry said 14 people had been killed and 122 wounded in Sadr City in the past 24 hours. Witnesses said two teenage girls were among the dead, killed in US shelling of the slum district where Sadr draws much of his support.
Broadening their uprising from the urban battlefield, the Mehdi Army set an oil well on fire in southern Iraq on Monday, the government said.
The unrest also forced Iraq to keep a main southern oil pipeline shut on Tuesday, reducing export flows by almost half.
The delegation will try to give the cleric a letter, urging him to leave the shrine and turn his militia into a political party.
But the scion of a Shi’ite clerical dynasty, aged about 30 and the most powerful opponent of the United States and the interim government, has shown little sign of compromise.
He has demanded US forces leave Najaf and the government grant an amnesty to his fighters as part of any deal.
Thousands of protesters have joined Sadr in the Imam Ali Mosque, promising to act as human shields in the city of 600,000 people some 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad.
The French fiancee of a US journalist held hostage in Iraq has appealed for his release, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said, adding that Micah Garen’s family had not heard from him since Friday when he disappeared with his translator.
Garen worked for a New-York based production company and was making a documentary on archaeology and the impact of the war.
Khaleej Times Online