| Mehdi Army fighters keep watch from the clock tower of the Kufa mosque. (Reuters)
Najaf, Aug. 20 (Reuters): Iraq’s interim government said it had defused a Shia rebellion in Najaf today without a shot being fired, but rebel militiamen denied police had seized the city’s sacred Imam Ali mosque from their control.
Witnesses said that by late afternoon, civilians were wandering around inside Iraq’s holiest Shia site while workers swept marble floors. There were no police or armed men from the Mehdi Army of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in sight.
Amid the extraordinary confusion over a two-week rebellion that has killed hundreds and driven world oil prices to record highs, the US military said it could not confirm the government had won back the shrine peacefully.
A senior interior ministry spokesman said police entered the shrine and arrested hundreds of militiamen. Any bloodless seizure of the mosque would be a major political victory for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who since taking over from US occupiers on June 28 has struggled to stem an insurgency and now a Shia revolt.
But soon after the seizure was announced, a senior Sadr aide said the statement was untrue. “The shrine is in the control of the Mehdi Army,” said Sheikh Ahmad al-Sheibani, a top militia commander. “The Mehdi Army will resist any attempt by the Iraqi police to control the shrine.”
“Procedures are under way to hand over control of the shrine to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,” he added, referring to Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric. Iraqi police in Najaf told CNN they did not control the Imam Ali mosque, the broadcaster reported today.
And US Rear Admiral Greg Slavonic said he could not confirm the Najaf mosque was in government hands. He added there were rumours Sadr had fled but his whereabouts were unknown. “We have no confirmation or intelligence on where he may be,” he said.
At least 77 Iraqis were killed and around 70 wounded in ferocious US air strikes and heavy fighting in the previous 24 hours in the southern city, health officials said. The uprising helped drive world oil prices to new record highs.
Insurgents in Iraq have waged a campaign of kidnapping aimed at driving out individuals, companies and troops supporting US forces and the new Baghdad administration. An Islamist group has seized 12 Nepali workers because of their cooperation with US forces, an statement issued on the Internet said today.
The interior ministry spokesman, Sabah Kadhim, appealed to Sadr, now the face of resistance to US and Iraqi authorities, to turn himself in. “The Iraqi police are now in control of the shrine, along with the religious authorities,” he said. Kadhim said Sadr might have escaped overnight.
He urged him to surrender so he might be covered by an amnesty Allawi has offered to some of those opposing his government.