Cleric Vows to Fight on in Iraq's Najaf, 360 Dead
Wext: Thursday, 12.August. @ 00:00:00 CEST
Moqtada al Sadr .
By Maher Mohammad
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) 09. 08. 2004 - A firebrand Shi'ite cleric on Monday defied demands from Iraq's interim government that his militia pull out of Najaf, after days of fierce clashes with U.S. marines who claim to have killed 360 of his fighters.
Heavily armed marines backed by aircraft tightened their noose around the holy city in heavy battles on Monday, but a senior U.S. military official denied coalition forces were hunting the young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Sadr thundered defiance during a news conference at Najaf's holiest shrine, the Imam Ali mosque.
"The Mehdi Army and I will keep resisting. I will stay in holy Najaf and will never leave," Sadr said. "I will stay here until my last drop of blood."
In a move that rocked Iraq's political establishment, an Iraqi judge issued arrest warrants against leading politician and former Pentagon darling Ahmad Chalabi and his nephew Salem Chalabi, the U.S.-appointed lawyer supervising Saddam Hussein's trial.
Both men dismissed the charges as groundless and politically motivated. Salem Chalabi said a murder charge against him was aimed at undermining the trial of the former dictator.
The fresh Shi'ite uprising poses the most serious test yet for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi since he took over from U.S.-led occupiers on June 28.
The U.S. military official said marines had killed at least 360 loyalists from Sadr's Mehdi Army militia since the uprising in Najaf erupted on Thursday.
As well as the bloody battles in Najaf, fighting in other cities has killed dozens in recent days.
In the southern city of Basra, British troops fought street gunbattles with Mehdi Army militiamen, who set fire to two British military Land Rovers. Five British soldiers were wounded.
A military spokeswoman said Iraq's second largest city and southern oil production center was "extremely tense."
Fresh clashes also broke out in a Shi'ite district of Baghdad named after Sadr's father on Monday.
The government imposed a curfew from 4 p.m. until 8 a.m. until further notice in the sprawling Sadr City slum, home to two million people, but residents ignored the order.
Explosions and gunfire echoed from the heart of Najaf, Iraq's holiest Shi'ite city 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad. Smoke rose from near an ancient cemetery, scene of hand-to-hand combat in recent days, as U.S. aircraft flew overhead.
Allawi visited the shell-scarred city on Sunday and demanded Sadr's militia back down. Sadr, a hero to Iraq's downtrodden Shi'ite youth, rejected the order to quit his hometown.
"In the presence of occupation, there are no politics," he said. "You can't twin democracy and occupation, you can't twin freedom and occupation."
Zuhair al-Maliki, the U.S.-appointed chief investigative judge of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, said an arrest warrant had been issued against Ahmad Chalabi in connection with counterfeiting money and against Salem on a murder charge.
Both men are outside the country.
Salem Chalabi, a lawyer leading the work of the Iraqi Special Tribunal which will try Saddam, said the charge alleged that he had threatened someone who was later killed.
Speaking to BBC radio, he said the judge seeking his arrest had criticized the procedures established for trying Saddam.
"The fact that it (the warrant) was leaked means there was some element of a smear campaign against me, and therefore against the tribunal, trying to discredit the tribunal, which I think has happened now," Salem Chalabi said in London.
Ahmad Chalabi was once touted as a potential leader of Iraq but has since been spurned by Washington and many in Allawi's government. He told Reuters from Iran, where he is on holiday, that he would return to fight the charges.
Officials in Washington have said Ahmad Chalabi is being separately investigated for leaking secrets to Iran. In 1992 he was convicted in absentia of bank fraud by a military court in Jordan. He says those charges too were politically motivated.
SUICIDE CAR BOMB
A Health Ministry official said 16 people had been killed in clashes in the past 24 hours in Iraq. But this did not include Najaf, where violence shut down most of the city.
A suicide car bomb exploded outside the house of an official in the village of Balad Ruz north of Baghdad on Monday, killing seven police, police and the U.S. military said. The deputy governor for Diala province Akil Hamed was among 17 wounded.
At least four Iraqis were killed when a bus was caught in a blast west of Baghdad, witnesses said. They said a bomb, possibly in a car, blew up on a main road in Khalidiyah village.
A U.S. marine was killed in action in western Iraq on Sunday, the U.S. military said. The death brought to at least 687 the number of American troops killed in Iraq since the start of last year's U.S.-led invasion.
Insurgents fired mortar rounds at the oil ministry and other government compounds on Monday after a night of intermittent mortar and rocket fire in central Baghdad, witnesses said.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Matthew Green, Luke Baker, Omar Anwar and Michael Georgy in Baghdad, Peter Graff in London and Faris Mahdawi in Baquba)