Aug. 10, 2004 – US tanks crept closer to one of the holiest sites in Shiâ€™ite Islam on Monday as Marines and Army cavalry units backed by aircraft tightened their grip on the center of Najaf, reportedly shelling neighborhoods very heavily and using the main civilian hospital as a base of combat operations. But fighters loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr showed no signs of surrendering, while Al-Sadr himself pledged to fight to the death.
"The Mehdi Army and I will keep resisting," Al-Sadr told a news conference Monday in his first public appearance since fighting erupted in Najaf last week. "I will stay in holy Najaf and will never leave. I will stay here until my last drop of blood," he said.
Al-Sadr spoke from the Imam Ali Shrine, named for the man considered to be the founder of Shiâ€™ite Islam.
The Associated Press reports that an American tank moved to within 400 yards of the shrine Monday as US forces tried to drive Al-Sadrâ€™s fighters from a nearby cemetery they have reportedly been using as a base. "We have the area basically contained so the fighters who are there cannot get support from outside," an unnamed "US military official" told reporters in Baghdad, according to the New York Times. "There are no routes in, no routes out," he said.
The AP reports that the same military spokesperson said Najafâ€™s governor had given the troops permission to enter the holy site, but they had not done so yet. "We have elected at this point not to conduct operations there, although we are prepared to do so at a moment's notice," the official said.
In a curious twist, the military said that while US forces are aggressively pursuing the Mehdi militia, they are not targeting Al-Sadr himself for arrest or killing. Al-Sadr "is not an objective; we are not actively pursuing him," the unamed official told reporters. According to the New York Times, some military officers have even suggested that many of the fighters currently battling US forces might not even be under Al-Sadrâ€™s control.
The Times also reported that anonymous "American military officers" say this view of the situation is false. Calling it a "convenient fiction," they suggest Iraqâ€™s US-appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and top American officials are deliberately pushing this version as a justification for wiping out as many resistance fighters as possible without deliberately attacking Al-Sadr. The rebel clericâ€™s popularity among Iraqis -- especially the young and underprivileged -- skyrocketed during the spring after the former commander of US troops in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, pledged that soldiers would "kill or capture" Al-Sadr.
Allawi made a brief visit to Najaf on Sunday during which he took a tough stance against Mehdi fighters. "There is no negotiation with any militia that bears arms against Iraq and the Iraqi people," he said. At the same time, Allawi invited Al-Sadr to participate in parliamentary elections scheduled to take place next January.
In his Monday news conference, Al-Sadr rejected Allawiâ€™s offer and issued a sharp criticism of the prime ministerâ€™s government, saying Baghdad "should be on the side of the people and not use the same weapons as Saddam Hussein."
Mehdi fighters also did not appear to heed Allawiâ€™s words. While the prime minister was meeting with US and Iraqi military officials, militia members conducted a bold, daytime attack against Najafâ€™s main police station, the LA Times reported. As Iraqi police called for US help, Allawi and his entourage were quickly whisked out of town, back to Baghdad.
In another sign that the militia has become more daring, Mehdi fighters threatened Monday to sabotage oil production at a state pumping facility in Basra. The threat caused Iraqi officials to shut down operations. "Pumping from the southern oilfields to storage tanks at Basra was stopped today after threats made by Al-Sadr," an official told Reuters, adding that operations would resume when the threat had ended.
The recent fighting between the Mehdi and US forces in Najaf escalated late last week after a series of small encounters between militia members and US forces at a Najaf police station and near Al-Sadrâ€™s house in the adjacent town of Kufa.
The US military told the AP Monday it had killed 360 Mehdi fighters since last Thursday, but aides to Al-Sadr quickly challenged that figure, saying only about three-dozen militia members had been killed and that most of the dead in Najaf were civilians. The LA Times reported that, according to the director of Al-Hakim hospital, 21 civilians had been killed as of Sunday evening, and that 87 people had been wounded in fighting since last Thursday.
According the Christian Science Monitor, which sent one of its reporters into Najaf last week, US forces in helicopter gunships repeatedly fired machine guns and rockets into residential neighborhoods where they said Mehdi fighters had taken up positions. Militia members, armed with Kalashnikov rifles returned fire, often shooting at anything on the streets or in the air that moved, the CSM reported.
The CSM also reported that doctors at Al-Hakim told relatives of wounded residents that US and Iraqi forces had taken over the cityâ€™s best-equipped hospital, turning it into a temporary military base and making if off limits to civilians. The use of civilian hospitals for combat operations and the prevention of civilian access to emergency facilities are both strictly forbidden by the Fourth Geneva Convention.
On Friday afternoon, US Marines moved closer to the sprawling cemetery and the Imam Ali Shrine in what is called Najafâ€™s "Old City." There, Mehdi fighters, who engaged in a series of fierce, running battles with the Marines, said they were committed to holding their ground near the holy sites.
A cleric close to Al-Sadr suggested, however, that a truce could be worked out if US troops pulled out of the city. "We can stop fighting if the Americans stop fighting, but right now, weâ€™re defending, not attacking," Sheikh Mushtaq Al-Khaffarji told the CSM.
Residents in Najaf expressed both outrage and weariness over the continued fighting in their city. Amad Kamal, an unemployed auto mechanic who supported the US when it ousted Saddam Hussein, told the CSM that he and many of his neighbors are now angry with the United States for both the fighting and the lack of jobs.
But Kamal also said Al-Sadrâ€™s militia deserves some of the blame for the recent fighting. "There are not really that many people who support Al-Sadr," he said. "People are tired. We might support the uprising mentally, but we are tired."