17 Dead Dozens Wounded As Iraqi South

17 Dead, Dozens Wounded as Iraqi South Erupts

2 US Troops Killed, 5 Wounded in Najaf

Alex Berenson of the New York Times reports that the young radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called for a jihad or holy war against Coalition troops. Heavy fighting broke out between Mahdi Army fighters in Najaf, where the militiamen killed 2 US troops (LA Times) and wounded 5 others, as well as killing 5 Iraqi policemen. Some 12 Mahdi Militia fighters were killed and 24 wounded. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat alleges that 102 persons in Najaf were wounded in the fighting and that mortar rounds fell on the main hospital, killing a doctor there. (All these numbers are soft, and various sources contradict one another about them). Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr went through the streets with microphones announcing that the Americans and their local puppets had mounted an assault on the shrine of Imam Ali (the son-in-law and a vicar of the Prophet). (This charge doesn’t seem to be true).

Edmund Sanders of the LA Times reports that US military sources blamed the beginning of the violence Thursday on Mahdi Army attacks on Najaf’s main police station. After the second such assault, the police called in US help. The Mahdi Army then attacked the governor’s office and checkpoints, and fired 30 mortar rounds at US troops and Iraqi police. An F-15 bombed Najaf’s sacred cemetery, where the Mahdi Army had taken up positions. Sadrist spokesmen said instead that the fighting was provoked by the aggressive moves against them of the American-appointed governor.

The Mahdi Army shot down one US helicopter, but the crew escaped unharmed.

Al-Hayat reports that the Americans were called in by American-appointed governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, whom the Sadrists accuse of reneging on the truce they had worked out with him. Shaikh Ahmad Shaibani, a spokesman for Muqtada, called on al-Zurufi to intervene to stop the fighting, since “he was the one who set it off.” Other Sadrists are threatening the life of al-Zurufi.

There were also clashes in Sadr City, where US troops called in close air support, with the slum being bombarded.

Al-Hayat reports that its correspondent in Nasiriyah called in an eyewitness account of how Mahdi Army fighters had taken control of the city’s key traffic intersections and other stategic sites, as the police withdrew to their barracks and did not oppose them. Likewise the Italian troops appear not to have attempted to engage the Mahdi Army on Thursday.

Adrian Blomfield of the Telegraph writes that Mahdi Army fighters clashed with British troops in Amara and Basra. In Basra, Sadr representative Shaikh Saad al-Basri declared holy war against British troops, who killed two Mahdi Army fighters in clashes. British forces had arrested four Mahdi Army militiamen on Wednesday in Basra, and in response the Sadrists gave them a deadline to release the men. Then on Thursday Mahdi Army fighters attempted to capture key strategic points in the city.

The deputy governor for administrative affairs in Basra, Salam Awdah, doubles as the chief representative of Muqtada al-Sadr. He accused the British of breaking the truce by crossing a red line.

CNN Headline news buried this story (US/ Shiite clashes) in the middle of its half-hour broadcast on Thursday into the night, rather than making it one of the headlines.

In Mahawil, about an hour south of Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb at a police station, killing 9 and injuring 24.

Reuters reported that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has fallen ill with heart problems and is under medical supervision. His office cancelled all his appointments this week. His inability to intervene in the current fighting may make the situation harder to resolve. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat reports that some local observers are worried that the outbreak of renewed fighting in Najaf might interfere with Sistani getting the medical care he needs. Born in August, 1930, in Mashad, Iran, Sistani came to Iraq in 1952 to study in Najaf’s seminaries and rose to become the preeminent mainstream religious authority among Shiites there.

If Sistani dies it might affect the political development of Iraq. It is not clear that the other three grand ayatollahs have Sistani’s high opinion of parliamentary democracy rooted in popular sovereignty. He would probably be succeeded by Muhammad Said al-Hakim, an Iraqi and distant cousin of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). SCIRI certainly does not have a long-term commitment to democracy, though Muhammad Said al-Hakim has never identified with that party himself. The other two possible successors are Bashir Najafi, a Pakistani, and Muhammad Fayad, an Afghan. Bashir Najafi is more vehemently anti-American than Sistani. Another contender is Sayyid Kadhim al-Haeri, sometimes called the “fifth grand ayatollah”, who is still in exile in Qom. He is a follower of Iran’s Khomeini and a radical reactionary on social issues. He had been Muqtada al-Sadr’s mentor but has broken with him.

Despite the apparent conviction of the US television networks that Iraq is fading as a story, Thursday’s developments underlined how fragile the situation is there and how easily US troops can get sucked again into major combat operations.