Najaf, Aug. 19 (Reuters): Fierce fighting raged in Najaf today where a radical Shia cleric spurned a final order from the Prime Minister to disarm his militia or face an attack on his sanctuary in a holy shrine.
US aircraft and tanks pounded the area around Najaf’s Imam Ali Mosque where Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi militia have holed up. Thick smoke poured into the sky, dozens of explosions shook the old city and automatic rifle crackled through the air.
Fighting eased an hour later, indicating the interim government’s threatened offensive was not yet under way.
“This is the final call for them to disarm, vacate the holy shrine, engage in political work and consider the interests of the homeland,” interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said in Baghdad.
Away from the shrine area, three mortar bombs hit a Najaf police station, killing seven police and wounding 21 others, officers said. Police said Mehdi militiamen fired the salvo. Sadr reverted to his trademark defiance after two days in which he had appeared to be willing to disarm his militia and end his two-week-old stand in Iraq’s holiest Shia shrine.
Asked about government demands, Sheikh Ahmed al-Sheibani, a senior Sadr aide and Mehdi Army commander, said earlier in Najaf: “It is very clear that we reject them.”
The rebellion has badly dented Allawi’s authority, killed hundreds and rattled world oil markets.
Allawi said while he welcomed the sometimes conciliatory comments by Sadr and his aides, he wanted something concrete in writing. He refused to be drawn on whether Sadr had been given a deadline, although his senior officials said it was hours.
“We are hoping that Moqtada al-Sadr is going to comply with the demands, otherwise I can assure you there will be military action against him,” Iraqi minister of State Kassim Daoud said. Any storming of the mosque could provoke outrage among Iraq’s majority Shia community.
In Baghdad, US troops overran the cleric’s stronghold in the Shia slum of Sadr City with tanks and armoured vehicles, meeting little resistance, witnesses said.
They later withdrew to the outskirts of the area, home to about two million people and where fierce fighting has broken out in the past two weeks.
US forces said they had killed 50 militiamen yesterday in their push into Sadr City.
Sadr said yesterday his militia forces would disarm and leave the Najaf mosque if a truce was agreed with US Marines, who have pounded his militia for two weeks in the southern city with warplanes, helicopter gunships and tanks.