The battle of Najaf resumes

13 August 2004
Fighting intensified in Najaf on 12 August as US marines vowed to defeat a week-long uprising by supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, in a battle that has raised fears of fresh sectarian violence across the country. Thousands of Al-Sadr supporters have staged demonstrations in cities across Iraq, including Nasiriyah, where rioters torched the office of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's political party.

The US military has warned Al-Sadr's Mehdi militia to stop using Najaf's holy sites. 'We will not allow them to continue to desecrate this sacred site,' said commanding officer Anthony Haslam on 10 August. 'There will be no sanctuary for thugs and criminals in Najaf.' On the sixth day of clashes, the US army attacked targets near the city's religious sites from the air. The number of dead is unclear, with the US military claiming to have killed hundreds of militants, and radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's aides insisting that only 37 men have died. Al-Sadr has vowed to keep up the battle. 'I will continue fighting,' he told reporters. 'I will remain in Najaf until the last drop of my blood has been spilled.'

Allawi visited Najaf the previous day with a warning to insurgents. He said there would be no negotiations with 'any militia that bears arms against Iraq and the Iraqi people'. The interim government is also taking a tough stance with its neighbours. Defence Minister Hazem Shalan accused Iran on 9 August of sending weapons to Shia insurgents, calling Iran his nation's 'first enemy'.

'There are Iranian-made weapons that have been found in the hands of criminals in Najaf who received these weapons from across the Iranian border,' Shalan said during an interview broadcast on Al-Arabiya television. 'The facts that we have say that what has happened to the Iraqi people is done by the one who is considered as the first enemy.'

Tehran, which is becoming increasingly embroiled in the conflict, confirmed the previous day that Iranian diplomat Fereidoun Jahani was missing in Iraq. A group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq released a video showing Jahani's identification documents and said he had been involved in inciting sectarian strife.

Allawi, for his part, has been attempting to demonstrate his credentials as an enforcer, declaring the return of the death penalty as well as heading a well advertised crackdown on corruption among the Baghdad oligarchy. An Iraqi judge on 8 August issued two arrest warrants for former governing council member Ahmed Chalabi and his nephew, Salem. Ahmed Chalabi is wanted on counterfeiting charges, while Salem Chalabi, who heads the tribunal trying Saddam Hussein, is wanted in connection with the murder earlier this year of a senior official in the Finance Ministry.

Despite the best efforts of the new government, which has severely curtailed powers outside the capital, there has been no let-up in the insurgency. A car bomb exploded on 9 August near Baqubah, killing seven people, in an apparent attempt to assassinate a deputy governor. Two days later, at least four Iraqis were killed and 10 were injured when a bomb exploded in a market north of Baghdad.

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