Continued Shiite Clashes with US
Since the recent round of fighting began in Najaf, 5 US Marines have been killed and 12 wounded in Najaf governorate.
AFP reports that hundreds of Najaf families streamed out of the city on Saturday, terrified of the heavy warfare being fought all around them. The US has aerially bombed Najaf cemetery and US tanks have targeted hotels in the city in an effort to get at the Mahdi army militiamen, of whom the US claims to have killed 300. This number has been challenged by the Sadrists, and local hospitals put the dead at closer to 76.
Heavy fighting broke out again early Saturday in Najaf, for the third straight day. Mahdi Army guerrillas fired mortar rounds at the US Marines. Ash-Sharq al-Awsat says an eyewitness phoned in a report of the streets littered with the bodies of Mahdi Army fighters. (As Riverbend notes, Arab satellite television also showed the body of at least one woman.)
Mahdi Army fighters have taken refuge in the shrine of Imam Ali, many of them having exhausted their ammunition. Muqtada al-Sadr himself has disappeared and gone into hiding. His mansion in Najaf was unguarded on Saturday.
US Marines captured the Najaf cemetery on Saturday, which had been a hide-out of the Mahdi Army militia. For centuries, pious Shiites have brought the corpses of dead relatives not only from Iraq but from all over the world to be buried near the shrine of Imam Ali (the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and successor according to Shiites). This practice has created enormous cemeteries in Najaf, with many crypts and other edifices where Mahdi Army fighters had begun hiding out. Most Shiites would view US troops as desecrating these holy burial places.
American warplanes overflew Najaf constantly Saturday. By early afternoon, the sounds of warfare had died down.
The caretaker Iraqi government continued to give mixed signals about Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement. AFP reports of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi,
“I invite Moqtada Sadr to participate in elections next year,” Allawi told reporters. The prime minister said he had received “positive signals” about Sadr running but did not elaborate.
This statement on Allawi’s part is bizarre at a time when Iraqi police and national guards are engaged in fierce combat with Muqtada’s militiamen, in support of an American attempt to wipe them out in Najaf. It strikes me as mere politicking, an attempt by Allawi to avoid being seen by the Iraqi public as the persecutor of Muqtada or as dictatorial (“Baath Lite” as many observers put it). I suppose it could also be seen as a carrot, deployed to get Muqtada to have his men lay down their arms in return for a place at the table of civil politics. But it seems increasingly clear that Muqtada views the forthcoming parliamentary elections as little more than an American charade fore-ordained to produce another puppet government, with which he wants nothing to do. Many of Muqtada’s supporters may run for office, but he is unlikely to. He also seems unlikely to give up his fascination with playing militia leader and having his men play with guns. After decades of repression by Saddam, many poor young Iraqi Shiite men insist on gunplay as a way of reasserting their self-esteem.
Other members of the caretaker government have been more frank. Police General Ghalib al-Jazairi said there would be no truce talks with the Mahdi Army. He said, acording to AFP, “We have received reinforcements and we have received new weapons. We will finish with them, control the city and no longer tolerate militias in Najaf.”
In Sadr City, Mahdi Army guerrillas attacked US military and Iraqi National Guard sites on Saturday. The fighting left 7 dead and 29 wounded, including 5 women and 5 children, according to local hospital officials. Some 10 US tanks rolled down the streets of this destitute slum, and were attacked by Mahdi Army fighters with mortar fire and anti-armor missiles. (-al-Hayat)
Several rockets hit a US military position in the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad, but did not produce casualties. On Friday, explosions in downtown Baghdad wounded five persons, including one inside the Green Zone (where US and Iraqi government offices are located in downtown Baghdad).
In Western Baghdad, guerrillas ambushed a US soldier and killed him.
The Ministry of Health announced on Saturday that 35 Iraqis had been killed and 180 wounded in the fighting in Baghdad (Sadr City and al-Shu’lah) in the past 24 hours.
Mahdi Army fighters attacked police headquarters in Amara as well as lobbing mortar shells at the British base on Friday night into Saturday morning. That fighting killed 4, including 2 policemen, and wounded 24.
At dawn on Saturday, militiamen subjected the provincial governor’s office to small arms and mortar fire. The police replied in kind, killing one of the gunmen.
The United Nations offered its good offices in negotiating another truce in Najaf. The overture was greeted positively by Sadrist spokesman Ali Yasiri, who said, “We have requested a more active role for the United Nations, and an end to military operations and respect for the truce, and a political solution to the crisis.” (al-Hayat).
Salama Khafaji, a former member of the Interim Governing Council who now serves in the executive office of the “Shiite Political Establishment”, accused the American forces on Saturday of “crossing a red line” and of contravening the truce that had been reached with the the Mahdi Army.