| Iraqi troops patrol near Najaf’s Imam Ali shrine. (Reuters)
Najaf, Aug. 24 (Reuters): Iraqi security forces moved to within 400 metres of a holy shrine in Najaf today, just hours after the government warned Shia rebels inside they would be killed if they did not surrender.
“God willing, we’ll be moving in tonight,” a commander of one unit said, adding that around 500 Iraqi troops had been deployed to the area around the Imam Ali mosque, the first time government forces have entered the battle zone.
An aide to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said his Mehdi Army militia was ready to negotiate to end the fighting, which has killed hundreds, driven oil prices to record highs and touched off clashes in seven other cities.
The advance was carried out by 50 Iraqi servicemen and came after US helicopters fired missiles and strafed militants dug in at a cemetery near the mosque, where most of the fighters have holed up during the three-week uprising in the city.
A US soldier guided the men in. They were shot at by Mehdi militiamen and returned fire.
“We are in the last hours. This evening, Iraqi forces will reach the doors of the shrine and control it and appeal to the Mehdi Army to throw down their weapons,” defence minister Hazim al-Shalaan said at a US army base outside Najaf. “If they do not, we will wipe them out.”
With fighting raging, US tanks reinforced positions along the southern flank of the mosque. Black smoke rose from the area and automatic gunfire crackled after an overnight bombardment from US warplanes and artillery.
The ultimatum from the US-backed interim government is the latest in a series of threats that Iraqi forces will storm the shrine to disarm the militia, which appeared ready to talk. ‘We are ready to negotiate to put an end to the suffering,” Sadr aide Ali Smeisim said in Najaf. He did not elaborate.
In Baghdad, insurgents tried to assassinate Iraq’s environment and education ministers in separate bombings that killed five of their bodyguards and wounded more than a dozen people, officials said.
Environment minister Mishkat Moumin said she survived a suicide car bomb attack on her convoy in Baghdad. Education minister Sami al-Mudhaffar was unhurt after a roadside bomb hit his convoy in the city, officials said.
A group linked to al Qaida ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attempt on Moumin and said it would not miss next time, according to an Internet statement.
The attacks were the latest attempts to kill officials in the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who took power from US-led occupiers barely two months ago and faces crises on many fronts, especially in Najaf.
“Serving the Iraqi people is not a crime that deserves this,” an outraged Moumin said after the blast. The attack shocked local residents.
“I opened the door to leave for work and the blast knocked me over,” said Ali al-Tai, standing in front of his home only metres from the blast site where Moumin was targeted, blood from victims splattered on his shirt.
In July, Iraq’s justice minister survived a suicide car bomb attack on his convoy in Baghdad. The then head of the Iraqi governing council, Izzedin Salim, was killed in May in a similar strike. Both of those attacks were claimed by Zarqawi. US Marines have done most of the fighting in Najaf. But any raid by US troops on Iraq’s holiest Shia shrine could trigger mass protests from the majority Shia community.
A rocket fired by militants clipped the wall of the gold-domed mosque today and may have damaged the building, the US military said. Both sides have accused each other of attacks near the shrine and of failing to respect holy ground.