May 14, 2004 – US forces stepped up their offensive against resistance fighters loyal to Shiâ€™ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr late this week, reportedly killing more than two-dozen Iraqis, injuring an unknown number of others, and destroying half of a mosque, according to the Associated Press and Reuters.
The attacks also brought US troops to within a few hundred yards of two of the holiest sites for Shiâ€™ite Muslims, the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines in Karbala, some 50 miles south of Baghdad, The New York Times reports.
The upsurge in fighting began late Tuesday, when US troops cordoned off an area surrounding the historic al-Mukhayyam mosque in Karbala. While US soldiers searched the mosque complex for weapons, members of Al-Sadrâ€™s Mahdi militia fired on them, according to Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, military spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). In response, US commanders called in air strikes, destroying a large portion of the mosque complex and damaging several shops and houses nearby, causing many families to flea, the AP reports. Hundreds of Shiâ€™ite pilgrims staying at hotels near the mosque also had to take cover to avoid fires caused by the air strikes.
The mosque is located near the heart of Karbala, not far from the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines, which are dedicated to martyrs killed centuries ago in clashes with Sunni Muslims.
Both the Associated Press and the CPA reported that fighting between US troops and members of the Mahdi militia took place near the Imam Hussein shrine after the Iraqi fighters regrouped in the vicinity. A Reuters TV correspondent at the scene said that militiamen attacked a US tank with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), causing heavy damage.
Brig. Gen. Kimmitt said US soldiers killed 22 Iraqi fighters during several skirmishes on Wednesday. He also reported that six coalition soldiers were wounded. Fighting continued into early Friday with four Iraqis killed and 13 wounded, according to the director of the main hospital in Karbala who spoke with Reuters. The news agency also reports that US helicopters scattered leaflets urging Al-Sadr to call off his militiaâ€™s resistance and turn himself in to coalition authorities.
In Najaf, another holy Shiâ€™ite city some 100 miles south of Baghdad, AlJazeera and Reuters report that US tanks blasted Mahdi positions near the cityâ€™s vast, sacred cemetery and around the police station early Friday. Reuters also reports that local hospital officials put the casualty figures at four dead and 26 wounded, most of whom were civilians caught in the crossfire. Aides to Al-Sadr told jouranlists that US forces damaged the dome of the Imam Ali mosque, a charge that Brig. Gen. Kimmitt, speaking from Baghdad, denied.
In fighting overnight Wednesday in Najaf, three Iraqis were killed and seven others injured, according to reports by The Daily Times of Pakistan and Aljazeera. "We have three people killed and seven wounded, three of them seriously," a doctor in Najaf told Aljazeera. "Most of the casualties are civilian," he added.
Mahdi fighters ransacked a police headquarters in Najaf late Wednesday, according to reports by CNN and the AP, seizing weapons and vehicles. The Daily Times of Pakistan reported that militiamen briefly detained a senior Iraqi police officer. A Najaf resident, identified as Jaber by Aljazeera, said he saw Mahdi fighters firing at US troops from a cemetery. The Americans responded, Jaber reported, by firing from tanks at the Mahdi fighters.
Earlier on Wednesday, Al-Sadr, who has been holed up in Najaf, held his first news conference since April, in which he suggested that the resistance against the US occupation is similar to the fight by the Vietnamese people against US forces more than three decades ago. "I appeal to the fighters and mujahedeen in Karbala to stand together so as none of our holy sites and cities are defiled. We are prepared for any American escalation and we expect one," he told reporters.
The movement of US forces deep into Karbala and Najaf appears to have derailed negotiations with Al-Sadr, who this week had also suddenly announced that he was willing to disband his militia if such action was requested by the Grand Shiâ€™ite Ayatollahs in Najaf and if US troops would also pull out from holy Shiâ€™ite areas.