Najaf erupts as US death toll tops 600

Posted in Iraq | 22-Aug-04 | Author: Donald Macintyre| Source: The Independent

A member of the Iraqi Shi'ite Mehdi army militia awaits orders on street corner in Najaf's old town August 21, 2004.

Fresh fighting broke out last night in the Shia holy city of Najaf as the US military announced the deaths of three more of its servicemen, bringing to more than 600 the number killed in Iraq since President George Bush declared major hostilities over. A Polish serviceman also died.

After a day of relative calm in Najaf, mortar, rocket-propelled grenade and machinegun fire resumed. Militiamen loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said they had shot down a pilotless American drone. There was no comment from US forces.

One American soldier was killed in a grenade attack in southern Baghdad, and the military authorities disclosed the deaths of two others on Friday in a roadside bombing near Samarra. The Polish soldier was killed and six wounded yesterday when a booby-trapped car exploded next to their convoy near the town of Hilla.

In Najaf, wrangling continued over control of Shia Islam's holiest shrine, the Imam Ali mosque. Mr Sadr's Mehdi Army militia has offered to hand the keys of the sanctuary to followers of Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, although they have said they would remain responsible for security there. But the terms of the transfer remained unresolved, further prolonging more than two weeks of fighting with US forces.

One report said that the ayatollah, currently in London for medical treatment, was insisting that the shrine be evacuated before he accepted the keys. But Sheik Ali Smeisim, Mr Sadr's chief lieutenant, said the militants would not leave until a delegation from Ayatollah Sistani's office inspected the shrine to ensure its treasures were intact, so they could not be accused of taking anything. The cleric's spokesman said the violence prevented such an inspection.

Heavy clashes broke out near the old city and Najaf's vast cemetery, the centre of much of the previous violence, with one blast 50 yards from the Imam Ali compound.

The crisis has become the biggest test confronting the interim government of Iyad Allawi, which on Friday claimed to have regained control of the shrine.