Major assault launched to flush out Sadr forces
The sound of heavy gunbattles resonated throughout the holy city of Najaf today as US forces launched a major offensive to crush a militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.
The fighting between US forces and al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia began here a week ago and has spread to other Shiite areas of the country. Even before the new offensive, intended to rout the militants, the US military estimated it had killed hundreds of them, a figure the militants disputed.
"Major operations to destroy the militia have begun," said US Marine Maj. David Holahan, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines Regiment.
Thousands of US troops were taking part in the offensive, which began with the cordoning off of the revered Imam Ali shrine, where the militants have sought refuge, Najaf's vast cemetery, where much of the fighting was taking place, and Najaf's Old City.
"In terms of combat power, it's doubled," said Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, from the US Army's 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division.
"We're starting to put the pressure on the militia to fight, die, or capitulate."
By Thursday afternoon, five civilians were killed and three injured, according to Nabil Mohammed, a health worker in Najaf.
Any assault near the militants' refuge in the shrine was expected to be led by Iraqi forces - many of whom have only minimal training - in an effort to lessen the anger from Iraq's Shiite majority should the revered holy site be damaged.
Taking the shrine itself was not the objective, Holahan said, "but it might be." US commanders say interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi would have to approve any operation at the shrine itself.
Explosions shook buildings near the shrine today, as US military vehicles entered the city from the north to the persistent crackle of gunfire.
A convoy of tanks, Humvees and other military vehicles rolled into the city carrying what seemed to be reinforcements and supplies.
Soldiers from the US Army's 1st Cavalry Division had cordoned off the area of Najaf that includes the cemetery, the shrine compound (a huge, circular complex) and the old city, which is just south of the cemetery and shrine, but haven't moved in.
"Today's operations are designed to restrict freedom of movement of Sadr forces in (nearby) Kufa and Najaf and to further isolate them in these mosques which they use as a base of operations," said US Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, the deputy director for operations.
"The combined Iraqi and multinational security forces are operating in strict compliance with guidance from the prime minister to safeguard and prevent possible harm to these holy shrines as well as protect the citizens and future of Iraq," he said.
Jawdat Kadhem al-Qureishi, a member of Najaf's city council resigned in protest of the offensive, he said Thursday.
"I announce my resignation to denounce and condemn the terrorist acts and the shelling that the city of Najaf and the Imam Ali Shrine have been subjected to," he said. "I condemn all the terrorist acts that the US forces have committed."
Earlier, Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi, who has been a staunch supporter of US forces here, claimed al-Qureishi had resigned because kidnappers had snatched his father and demanded he step down in return for his release. Al-Qureishi did not comment on al-Zurufi's report.
Al-Zurufi later said city council members were working to defuse the crisis, however previous efforts to negotiate an end to the violence over the past week had failed and it appeared unlikely that any new one would succeed.
"I cannot give details about this initiative and we hope that this crisis is solved in the coming days. The situation is unbearable in the city and the militiamen should leave," he said.
Hundreds of residents left their homes in the last few days, and more fled their houses near the shrine Thursday.
"We have put up with hunger, electricity outages and lack of water, but we cannot put up with death," Aqil Zwein, 42, said. "We have seen the American tanks near our home."
A column of US tanks lined one edge of the cemetery, as a helicopter flew overhead on patrol. Soldiers crawled on the roofs of single-story buildings, setting up positions.
Two soldiers were injured when hit by a mortar shell while standing in an intersection of the cemetery, the military said.
"It's pretty standard, they'd push up here, fire off a few rounds, fire RPGs, then leave," said Capt. Patrick McFall.
In response to the offensive, nearly 5,000 al-Sadr sympathizers took to the streets in the southern city of Basra, demanding that US troops withdraw from Najaf and condemning Allawi for his perceived support of the Americans.
The protesters chanted "Yes, yes Muqtada; no America, no Allawi," and demanded the city council send reinforcements to Najaf to help the militants.
On Wednesday, al-Sadr loyalists in Basra threatened to blow up the oil pipelines and port infrastructure there if coalition forces launched a major attack in Najaf. A similar threat Monday caused oil officials to briefly stop pumping from the southern oil wells.
Al-Sadr has exhorted his followers to fight on even if he is killed.