Continued Clashes in Karbala Lead to Closure of Shrines
al-Zaman: On Sunday, Shiite religious authorities in Karbala formally closed the shrines of Imam Husain and his half-brother Abu’l-Fadl Abbas, to pilgrims. This rare procedure has not been implemented for decades. It was felt necessary because although militiamen (including Badr Corps) loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani hold the shrines, they have been infiltrated recently by gunmen of the Mahdi Army loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, who are using them for cover in their fight against the Americans.
Local Karbala clerical leader Shaikh Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi had called for a demonstration on Sunday, and despite the poor security situation, some 1500 are said to have come out for it briefly. They were demanding that both the Mahdi Army and the US military depart Karbala. The march was infiltrated, however, by members of the Mahdi Army, who began chanting pro-Muqtada slogans. The other marchers grew alarmed that they might be mistaken for Sadrists by the US army and fired upon, so they quickly dispersed and the march thus collapsed.
The US sent 10 tanks into downtown Karbala on Sunday, positioning them not far from the two shrines. US troops clashed with Mahdi Army fighters in Karbala, and the Sadrists were forced to withdraw. Before they did so, they lobbed mortar shells and fired rocket-propelled grenades at US troops.
Rings of thieves took advantage of the breakdown of law and order in Karbala, looting the storehouses belonging to the wholesale merchants in the al-Dahanah Market. They also looted all the shops in the market. The streets and government buildings were deserted, according to eyewitnesses.
In Kufa, nine trucks full of food and medicine arrived from Fallujah, as an expression of support for Muqtada al-Sadr by the Sunni Arabs of al-Anbar province. The Sadrists had joined in sending a convoy of supplies to Fallujah when it was being besieged in early April.
A spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islami Revolution in Iraq urged US forces to remain in Iraq until order was restored. SCIRI is a rival for power in the Shiite areas with Muqtada al-Sadr.
Hamzah Hendawi of AP offers a useful set of observations about the rising popularity of Muqtada and offers some insight into what Grand Ayatollah Sistani is thinking:
‘ Some remain confident the senior clerics will prevail at the end. One person with close links to al-Sistani’s office said the ayatollah has concluded that speaking out now would only turn Shiite against Shiite. ”Powerful tribal leaders and supporters come to his office daily asking him to permit action against Muqtada, but he is refusing,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘
But what I heard from my sources is that Paul Bremer was the one who nixed the idea of using tribal levies to deal with the Army of the Mahdi.