BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. Marines launched a major offensive deep into the heart of Najaf on Thursday, pounding the ancient city from the air and the ground to crush a weeklong Shiite insurgency before storming the house of the rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr. He wasn’t there.

At least 154 people were reported killed in fighting across southern Iraq and in Baghdad, as U.S. and Iraqi forces battled a widening Shiite insurgency that briefly saw several towns fall into rebel hands.

U.S. soldiers kept away from the venerated Imam Ali mosque at the heart of Najaf, according to a military statement, amid rising Shiite and Arab anger at the attack on one of Islam’s holiest cities.

The goal of the offensive is to throw up a cordon around the mosque and restrict the movements of al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militiamen, who have been using the mosque to launch attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces, the statement said.

Any assault on the mosque itself will be undertaken by Iraqi police and guardsmen, who have pushed ahead of U.S. Marines to the perimeter of the shrine, Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al Nakib told reporters in Baghdad. U.S. forces remain at least 1,000 yards away, he said.

“We will not allow any foreign forces to enter the shrine of the holy Imam Ali,” he said. “The Iraqi forces will be the ones to liberate these places occupied by these criminal gangs.”

The assault on al-Sadr’s house, which is on the eastern edge of the city, came after a day of fighting in which helicopter gunships and warplanes bombarded the city while Marines pressed toward the mosque from the north and the south. U.S. soldiers moved through the narrow streets in Bradley Fighting Vehicles broadcasting messages through loudspeakers urging civilians to escape.

“Leave the city. Help coalition forces and do not fire on them,” the messages said. TV footage showed families fleeing the smoking city on foot, heading toward the desert with bags of belongings.

After failing to find al-Sadr at his home, Iraqi officials said, they believe the rebel cleric leader is holed up inside the mosque alongside his black-clad militia supporters, who turned the mosque into a military stronghold after April’s uprising.

Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said 1,200 rebel suspects had been arrested, including a number of foreign fighters. He showed reporters videos of the Mahdi Army firing mortars from the mosque and accused the militia of wiring the mosque with explosives that could be detonated in the event of an assault.

“Operations are continuing and will continue until these militia evacuate the holy shrine either by force or by surrendering to the authorities,” he said.

U.S. forces also launched an offensive in the nearby town of Kufa, another holy city that is an al-Sadr stronghold, the military said.

The assault on Najaf came after a week of fierce fighting in the city that ruptured a two-month-old cease-fire and triggered widespread instability throughout the Shiite south and in the Baghdad Shiite slum of Sadr City.

As fresh reports of clashes and casualty figures trickled in from around the country, it became clear that the insurgency is more widespread than previously thought.

According to the Iraqi Health Ministry, there were 154 deaths reported in clashes over the 24-hour period that ended Thursday afternoon in five cities, including 36 in Baghdad and 25 in Najaf.

Some of the heaviest fighting took place overnight Wednesday in the town of Kut, where 72 people were reported killed during airstrikes called in to support Iraqi police, guardsmen and U.S. Special Forces soldiers battling to drive out insurgents. At least 400 Mahdi militiamen had briefly seized control of the town, occupying government buildings and setting up checkpoints, the Interior Ministry said.

There were 14 deaths in Amarah and seven in Diwaniyeh when Iraqi and coalition forces took on rebels who had occupied government buildings, the ministry said.

Tensions remained high in Baghdad, with more clashes reported in Sadr City, an al-Sadr stronghold controlled by the Mahdi Army. U.S. forces and Iraqi police have surrounded the area in an attempt to contain the insurgency and launched several raids that uncovered 300 explosive devices, the Interior Ministry said.

Many ministries, shops and factories closed for a third day after threats by al-Sadr’s militia to target government institutions, and scattered mortar explosions echoed across Baghdad on Thursday night.

A firefight erupted in central Baghdad’s Haifa Street when Iraqi forces moved to detain members of what officials described as a terrorist gang.

Insurgents briefly seized control of a police station in Baghdad’s Shouala neighborhood but were driven away by Iraqi forces, the Interior Ministry said.

There were also clashes in the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Basra involving Italian and British troops, but no casualty figures were available for those cities.

A helicopter crash west of Baghdad killed two U.S. Marines and injured three Wednesday night. No enemy fire was observed when the CH-53 helicopter went down, the U.S. military said Thursday.

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Despite attempts by the interim government to convince Iraqis that U.S. troops will stay away from Shiite Islam’s holiest shrine, the push by Marines into the precincts of the ancient city of Najaf stirred anger among many Shiites.

Thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against the attack on Najaf in the Baghdad neighborhood of Khadamiya, chanting anti-government and anti-American slogans. Tens of thousands marched through Basra holding pictures of al-Sadr and denouncing U.S. forces.

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Across the Muslim world there was anger at the offensive in Najaf. Egypt called on the U.S.-led coalition to call off the attack and pursue negotiations instead. Iran’s Foreign Ministry denounced “the massacre of defenseless Iraqi people” and urged international intervention.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite religious leader, said he was “pained and very sad” about the events in Najaf, according to the British Broadcasting Corp. Al-Sistani, who lives beside Najaf’s Imam Ali Mosque, left for London to receive medical treatment for a heart complaint shortly before the fighting erupted last week.

During last spring’s Shiite uprising, al-Sistani insisted that U.S. forces should stay outside the city center and not approach the golden-domed mosque at the heart of the town. It is regarded as the holiest site of Shiite Islam because it houses the tomb of the Imam Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and the leader regarded by Shiites as the true heir to his legacy.

But Iraq now has its own interim government, and U.S. officials say they are moving against al-Sadr and his militia at the request of the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Allawi issued a statement urging al-Sadr’s fighters to lay down their arms and join the political process. “The government calls on all the armed groups to drop their weapons and return to society,” it said. “The door to negotiations is still open.”



(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040812 Najaf fighting

AP-NY-08-12-04 2028EDT



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