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Shrine militia in Najaf strikeback

Near An Najaf (Iraq), April 2 (Reuters): US troops attacked fidayeen fighters loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the central city of An Najaf today, drawing return fire from defenders hidden in one of the world’s holiest Muslim shrines, US officials said.

US commanders said they did not fire back on the gold-domed Ali Mosque, which is revered by Shi’ite Muslims and contains the tomb of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib — a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad.

But they did mount a fierce attack on suspected fidayeen positions around the city, strafing buildings from A-10 Warthog ground attack planes and calling in British fighter jets to bomb the city’s Baath Party headquarters.

The US troops then entered the city from the south, north and west, fanning out into sprawling neighbourhoods in block-by-block searches for the militia fighters.

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Holden of the 101st Airborne said the attack on An Najaf was aimed at clearing out the fidayeen, paramilitary fighters who have spearheaded the resistance against the US and British invasion.

“The target is to destroy fidayeen units and anyone else trying to disrupt our lines of communication,” he said. “We are going to destroy them.”

At the US war headquarters in Qatar, a spokesman said Iraqi defenders had fired on American troops from inside the Ali Mosque, which stands in the centre of the city. “The Iraqi regime’s use of the Ali Mosque for military purposes is just the latest example of the regime’s continued strategy of placing sacred sites in Iraq in jeopardy,” the US official told a news briefing.

Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, chief US spokesman, later told reporters that a decision had been taken not to shoot back at the mosque because of its religious and historical significance.

“While we always have the choice of returning fire to respond to any threat that’s out there on the battlefield, we approach all of our decisions on the battlefield with discrimination, with consideration to the outcome of that action,” Brooks said.

“At the same time, we’re gonna protect our force.”

The US report of shooting at the mosque could not immediately be confirmed by a Reuters correspondent travelling with US forces in An Najaf.

Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf denied that the US forces were inside An Najaf, and accused them of using low flying planes to shake and destabilise sacred sites.

“After we repelled them to the desert, they hit the mosques. It is obvious they are doing this to destroy these shrines,” Sahaf told a news conference in Baghdad.

In Tehran, a spokesman for Iraq’s largest dissident party and main Shi’ite group, said that if the report of shooting from inside the mosque proved true, it should be condemned.

“Saddam’s regime is taking advantage of the holy sites to achieve its evil goals, and this is always to be condemned,” said the spokesman for the Iranian-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

As the 101st Airborne Division troops moved into An Najaf from the south, US and British fighter jets attacked from the air.

Thick columns of smoke rose above the city after British Tornado fighter pilots dropped six 450-kg bombs on the local headquarters of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party, which they said was completely destroyed.

“Those last two hit the target smack down the middle,” one of the pilots said in radio communications with US forces.

Officials said the assault on An Najaf would also involve Apache attack helicopters, and that suspected fidayeen positions were being hit with 30 mm depleted uranium rounds — “tank killer” weapons that are capable of blasting through walls.

The attack on An Najaf came as US forces surged forward on a number of fronts, encircling Karbala, another Shi’ite holy city, and seizing a key bridge over the Tigris river near Kut, putting them in control of a major highway leading to Baghdad.

Sahaf denied that the US forces had crossed the Tigris and he branded as “illusions” Washington’s reported advances at An Najaf and Karbala.

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