Clashes outside Kufa; Situation Tense in Shrine Cities
ash-Sharq al-Awsat: A series of explosions shook the city of Kufa on Friday, and eyewitnesses saw dozens of armed militiamen hurrying to various parts of the city. Reports spoke of clashes with the foreign troops. At least four troop transport trucks full of Mahdi Army fighters left for the east of Kufa. Others were carrying rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers. After a few minutes, dozens returned, crossing the bridge over the Euphrates, heading into the city. Some militiamen said that a US convoy had been attacked, and had been crowned with success. One militiaman claimed to have hit two trucks and left them burning. He said, however, that the Mahdi Army began receiving mortar fire and therefore withdrew.
In East Baghdad, Reuters reports that ‘ tens of thousands of Shi’ites chanted support for Sadr in his main power base, the Baghdad slum district of Sadr City. “Rivers of your blood will flow,” Sheikh Nasser al-Saedi told the crowd in a warning to U.S. forces not to attack Najaf. ‘
Back in Najaf (about an hour’s drive south of Baghdad), the US increased the number of Polish and Spanish troops around Najaf in preparation for a possible battle for the city. A physician at Kufa hospital said that at least 5 persons had been killed and 20 injured, many of them seriously.
Hope for a negotiated settlement ebbed Friday. On the one hand, Muqtada seemed to go back and forth between saying he would negotiate and then refusing to. On the other, the US put stipulations on the mediation effort that were unacceptable to the grand ayatollahs in Najaf.
Khidhir Jafar al-Khuza’i, from a splinter group of the Shiite al-Da`wa Party, said that the day before yesterday “we had laid out the American point of view for the grand ayatollahs and Mr. al-Sadr, but the religious leadership considered one of the conditions set by the Americans to be crippling.” He refused to give any details about the condition.
He said that the intermediary chosen by the Grand Ayatollahs was Abdul Karim al-Anzi, who met with Muqtada, and the son of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and who met with a number of other leading religious scholars in Najaf.
A local medical source in Karbala said that two Iraqi police had been killed near a mosque in that city controlled by the Army of the Mahdi.
Abdul Mahdi Karbala’i, Sistani’s representative in Karbala, said that his city and Najaf are “considered a red line that the Coalition forces may not cross.” He intimated that the inhabitants of Iraq could be called upon to rebel and take up arms. In his Friday sermon at Karbala, he said, “The situation has reached a serious juncture in past days, and reports indicate that the Occupation Forces will violate the sanctity of Karbala and Najaf, shedding in them much blood, and destroying what the people of those two cities have built. He said the religious leadership could forestall such a move, and that if the Coalition forces moved on the cities it would have grave consequences. He said that after so many years of state terror, every effort should now be made to find a peaceful way forward, and one that the US could not refuse. He said these peaceful methods must be used to end the occupation and return sovereignty to competent persons who represent the independent national will. He warned that if the religious leadership concluded that there was no escape from launching an armed uprising, it would not hesitate to do so. (And this is the representative of the moderate, Sistani!)
In another blow to the hope of a negotiated settlement, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi backed off earlier statements that Iran was willing to mediate between Muqtada and the Coalition. He now says it would be better if the US just left Iraq as soon as possible. Kharrazi’s boss, President Mohammad Khatami, has probably been over-ruled (yet again) by Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei, who clearly did not like the idea of Iran saving the US from a disaster of its own making.