Najaf, April 3 (Reuters): After battling pro-Baghdad loyalists, US troops moved into the centre of Iraq’s holy city of An Najaf today, bolstered by an edict from a top local Shia leader urging people not to interfere with them.
US officers said they believed most of the fidayeen paramilitary fighters loyal to President Saddam Hussein had dropped their equipment and fled — but that a few were still in the city putting up a fight.
“Ideally, we would kill them all,” Colonel Joseph Anderson, a brigade commander of the 101st Airborne Division, said. “But if they choose to change their mind and flee, there’s not much we can do.”
The US military said a senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who had been held under house arrest by Saddam’s government, had ordered local people in a “fatwa” not to interfere with the US-led invasion troops. “We believe this is a very significant turning point and another indicator that the Iraqi regime is approaching its end,” Brigadier General Vincent Brooks told reporters in Qatar.
A Reuters correspondent in Baghdad just one week ago saw a fatwa issued by Sistani still pinned to the door of a main Shia mosque in the capital saying Iraqis would “stand together against any invasion”.
In London, the Shia Al Khoei foundation confirmed the ayatollah’s new ruling and said that until now his followers had been “confused” over whether to fight the US forces.
Najaf, 160 km south of Baghdad, is one of Iraq’s most important religious centres and home to the revered gold-domed Ali Mosque, which contains the tomb of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.
Some Najaf residents appeared alarmed by the actions of the US troops. CNN footage showed soldiers trying to calm a crowd who apparently thought they were planning to seize the mosque. US military sources said one of the two brigades of the 101st Airborne in Najaf had been in negotiations with Sistani about how to govern Najaf in the absence of pro-Saddam forces.
Earlier, mortars, rockets and sporadic gunfire had echoed before dawn before US soldiers fanned out on house-to-house missions to search and secure poor neighbourhoods.
“Every building can hold a surprise. It is extremely resource-intensive and it takes a lot of time,” said Captain J.P. Swoopes.
Soldiers said they had found sizeable caches of rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and multiple-launch rocket systems in searches of homes yesterday.