BAGHDAD, Iraq – After preparing all day for an attack on militia in and around Shiite Islam’s holiest shrine, American commanders in Najaf, Iraq, abruptly changed plans Wednesday and postponed a confrontation with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Marine commanders cited unspecified delays in the planning of the assault, to be carried out in conjunction with Iraqi national guardsmen in hopes of deflecting Iraqi anger about damage caused to the Imam Ali mosque, where al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia are believed to be hiding.

But the American presence in the holy city already has inflamed several of the country’s most influential Shiite politicians. Interim Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of the long-established Islamic Dawa Party, called on U.S. forces to leave Najaf immediately.

“Only Iraqi forces should stay in Najaf,” Jaafari told Al Jazeera satellite television. “These forces should be responsible for security and should save Najaf from this phenomenon of killing.”

Al-Sadr declared himself ready for whatever might come. “I hope that you keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred,” he said in a statement. “I thank the dear fighters all over Iraq for what they have done to set back injustice. God willing, you will be victorious.”

Earlier in the day, Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said Iraqi and U.S. forces were “making final preparations as we get ready to finish this fight.” But his second-in-command later announced that the assault was being delayed at least temporarily.

Reporters embedded with the Marines said a waiting column of tanks and armored vehicles turned around and returned to their base outside the city.

Though interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has expressed his determination to crush al-Sadr’s militia, other Iraqi politicians expressed concern for the sanctity of the Imam Ali mosque, the burial site of the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.

Similar concerns prompted U.S. commanders to negotiate an uneasy truce with al-Sadr in June after two months of fighting.

The governor of Najaf province, Adnan al-Zorfi, disputed American officials’ contention that he had granted them permission to attack the shrine.

“If we decide to go into the old city, this will be the job of Iraqi police and soldiers,” al-Zorfi said.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denounced U.S combat operations in Najaf as “one of the darkest crimes of humanity” in a speech broadcast on state television.

Though Najaf was quieter than in previous days, battles continued with al-Sadr supporters.

Militants attacked a police station in Kut. Demonstrators burned the local headquarters of the prime minister’s political party in Nassiriya. In the southern city of Amarah, fighting between insurgents and British forces killed 20 people and wounded 50, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. The British reported two minor casualties among their own troops.

Hospital officials in Fallujah, a hotbed of Sunni Muslim opposition, said American jets bombed several houses and killed four people.

In Baghdad, Madhi Army members attacked a district council headquarters in the Sadr City neighborhood, despite a tight cordon thrown up by U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces.

With al-Sadr’s militia calling for a 1 p.m. curfew in the capital, traffic was light in central Baghdad and many shops were closed, although more businesses appeared to be open than the day before.

A roadside bomb exploded near a market just outside of Baqouba, Iraq, about 30 miles north of Baghdad, killing at least six Iraqis.

Also, gunmen killed the regional head of Iraq’s largest Shiite political party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, in Mahmoudiya, Iraq, about 25 miles south of Baghdad.

(Chicago Tribune correspondent Liz Sly contributed to this report.)

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

AP-NY-08-11-04 2015EDT

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