US Troops Assault Sadrists in Three Shiite Holy Cities
Al-Hayat: Special UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had to delay his return to Iraq because the Bush’s decision to besiege Fallujah and kill 600 there in revenge for the killing of 4 private commandos. Now Brahimi is back in the country, working to save Bush’s skin, and the Americans have greeted his arrival with military operations against a number of southern Shiite cities aimed at reducing the power of the Army of the Mahdi, the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr. The “password” for the beginning of the new campaign was apparently Paul Bremer’s appointment of a new governor for Najaf, Adnan al-Durufi, who is a follower of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, after a convocation of 150 local Shiite notables had condemned Muqtada al-Sadr. Bremer emphasized that the Coalition would not back down in its determination to disarm the followers of Muqtada, the Army of the Mahdi, and to ensure that Muqtada himself stands trial in the murder on April 9, 2003, of cleric Abdul Majid Khoei in Najaf. Bush himself affirmed recently that the Iraqis themselves would have to take care of al-Sadr.
American forces advanced Thursday on key strategic targets in Kufa, Karbala, and the environs of Najaf, where violent clashes broke out. This in the wake of the US dispatch to the south of large numbers of reinforcements. The political offices of Muqtada al-Sadr in the heart of Karbala were razed. The outskirts of Kufa witnessed major battles, and loud explosions were heard near Najaf. The US army also announced that it had undertaken four military operations on Wednesday night in the slums of East Baghdad (Sadr City), in which it killed 10 Sadrist militiamen.
American troops gradually encroached on Najaf on Thursday, establishing control over the headquarters of the provincial governor on the outskirts of the city. In the heavy battles preceding this victory, an estimated 41 Mahdi Army militiamen were killed. US troops then searched the surrounding buildings and placed snipers atop them. Najaf residents were requested in Arabic not to leave their homes, especially in the Ghadir quarter, where the governor’s mansion is situated. Bremer requested the new governor, al-Dhurufi, to disarm the Army of the Mahdi. Loud explosions and the heavy exchange of fire were heard in Najaf, causing the deaths as so far reported of 4 Iraqis, and the wounding of 10. The US troops set up checkpoints on the road between Najaf and Kufa. The army also positions numerous tanks and armored fighting vehicles in the northwest of Najaf, in preparation for an assault on Mahdi Army positions.
This is the first time that American armor has been positioned in al-Sadrayn Square, about a mile from the shrine of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
American and Polish troops withdrew from the center of Karbala a few hours after they had entered the city and bombarded Muqtada’s offices there. (I heard in US media that an American soldier was quoted as saying that the buildings blew up on taking some fire, suggesting that they were full of stockpiled explosives). Eyewitnesses reported that violent clashes took place between Coalition troops and Mahdi Army militiament that lasted several hours. One militiaman was killed and nine wounded.
Kufa, near Najaf, was also the site of heavy battles on Thursday between Sadrists and the Americans, in which 41 Iraqis were killed. In Nasiriyah, Italian troops battled Mahdi Army gunmen, with three Iraqis killed.
It is my information that the Shiite members of the Interim Governing Council not only do not object to the American plan to gradually surround and destroy the Mahdi Army in the three cities, but that some of them wanted to send tribal levies in to do the job. The latter plan was overruled by Mr. Bremer, presumably because it risked throwing a great deal more power to the tribal chieftains, and the US is now eager to husband military power for itself.
In other news, a suicide bomber drove his car into a checkpoint outside the US headquarters in Baghdad, killing one American soldier and wounding 3, and leaving 6 Iraqi civilians dead and 23 wounded. The al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War) group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed credit for the attack.
A roadside bomb killed two US troops and wounded two early morning on Thursday.
Another roadside bomb exploded as a 3-vehicle convoy of foreign civilians went by.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, the Director General of the Agriculture Bureau was assassinated.