| A militiaman loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr takes position near the cemetery in Najaf. (AFP)
Najaf, May 14 (Reuters): US forces intensified their war against Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr today, sending tanks into Najaf’s vast cemetery to blast guerrilla positions on sacred ground in the holy city for the first time.
Explosions and gunfire rocked Najaf for six hours and there was fighting around the main police station, less than a kilometre from some of the holiest Shia shrines. Sadr aides showed journalists three holes in the gilded dome of the Imam Ali mosque, the most sacred. Each side pointed the finger of blame at the other.
“Let me make it clear we did not attack the shrine of Imam Ali,” US military spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said in Baghdad. In the evening, Sadr’s militiamen attacked the offices of the US-led civilian administration in Nassiriya after taking over the governor’s office.
Andrea Angeli, the administration spokesman there, said he was among 20 international staff trapped in the building along with four Italian reporters as Italian troops and Filipino security guards traded fire with the militiamen.
In Najaf, officials said four dead and 26 wounded, mostly civilians caught in the crossfire, were taken to hospital. Many more people were believed to have been killed in the cemetery, but their bodies had yet to be collected.
At least seven US tanks thrust deep into the cemetery, a city within a city covering several square kilometres where Shias from all over the world wish to be buried within sight of Najaf’s sacred shrines.
US forces blasted suspected positions of Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, who have been using the sprawling graveyard to stage hit-and-run attacks on US positions on the edge of town. Clouds of white smoke rose as shells burst among the tombs.
Guerrillas fought back with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. In Baghdad’s Shia Sadr City slum, Imam Abdul Hadi al-Daraji told worshippers: “After the end of prayer you have to go to the holy city of Najaf to support your brothers.”
An aide to top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called on both US forces and Sadr’s militiamen to cease fighting and leave the holy city.
Sadr was able to move out of town and preach his usual anti-American weekly sermon at Kufa, next door to Najaf.
US commanders say they try not to encroach on holy sites, including the Imam Ali shrine where Sadr has taken sanctuary.
“We describe the holy city as the shrine and the cemetery and today we took some mortar fire from the cemetery and we acted against the mortar fire, very precisely, in and out,” Major General Martin Dempsey, commander of US forces in the area, said.
He did not explain why tanks were sent into the cemetery today when mortar attacks from it occur daily. But US commanders said this week Sadr’s “illegal militia” must be disbanded and their patience was wearing thin after more than a month of fighting across southern Iraq.
US patience also showed signs of fraying in Falluja, the flashpoint town west of Baghdad, after Mohammed Latif, the Iraqi general put in charge of security to end a bloody month-long Marine siege, said he had no plans to disarm insurgents.
Major General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division encircling Falluja, said time was running out for that demand to be fulfilled.
“Weapons are not the problem. They are easy to collect,” Latif said. “What we need to do is rebuild our country. There is no need for American soldiers. I am sure the Americans would be happy to go to their homes.”
Paul Bremer, the US governor of Iraq, did raise the possibility of an American pullout. “If the provisional government asks us to leave we will leave,” he said of a post-June 30 administration after the handover of sovereignty.
Mirror editor quits
Piers Morgan, the editor of Britain’s Daily Mirror newspaper, resigned today over publication of pictures claiming to show the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops that proved to be fake. “The Board of Trinity Mirror has decided that it would be inappropriate for Piers Morgan to continue in his role as editor of the Daily Mirror,” the newspaper said in a statement.