Aug. 11, 2004 – As US-led forces reportedly prepared to launch a major assault against members of Muqtada Al-Sadrâ€™s Mehdi militia in Najaf, the cityâ€™s top health official, Falah Al-Mahani, said Wednesday that deteriorating security conditions were causing "a real catastrophe" for local health services. Al-Mahaniâ€™s statements and the reported comments of other medical officials in Najaf suggest that forces on both sides may be committing war crimes in the embattled city.
"Ambulances are prevented from reaching the injured people by the clashing parties," Al-Mahani told the Associated Press. "Our staff are not able to reach their hospitals. We are paralyzed."
Al-Mahani also said that the fighting has wounded 18 members of his own staff, the AP reports. He put the total civilian casualty figures in Najaf at 25 killed and 146 wounded as of Tuesday night.
The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that doctors at Najafâ€™s Al-Hakim hospital said US-led forces had taken over the cityâ€™s best-equipped hospital, turning it into a base of operations and making it 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, to which the United States is a signatory.
US forces may also be indiscriminately firing machine guns and rockets into civilian neighborhoods in Najaf. "We've pretty much just been patrolling and flying helicopters all over the place, and when we see something bad, we blow it up," Major David Holahan of the Marines told the AP Wednesday.
Iraqâ€™s interim Vice President, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, who criticized the US last week for fighting in Najaf, told Aljazeera TV Wednesday that US and other foreign forces should leave the city immediately. "I call for multinational forces to leave Najaf and for only Iraqi forces to remain there," he said. "Iraqi forces can administer Najaf to end this phenomenon of violence in this city that is holy to all Muslims."
In hopes of averting further catastrophe, Amr Musa, the head of the 22-nation Arab League, urged US commanders and Iraqâ€™s government to negotiate with Al-Sadr and the Mehdi militia. "Political dialogue is the only way to put Iraq back on the right track and obtain the departure of foreign troops," he said, according to Aljazeera.
US commanders insist they have permission from Najafâ€™s governor and the interim Iraqi government to enter the Imam Ali Shrine, considered the holiest site in Shiâ€™ite Islam. Maj. Holahan told the AP his troops were preparing Iraqi security forces for a major joint assault aimed at rooting out Mehdi fighters who have been holed up in a vast cemetery near the shrine.
While American military officials have repeatedly insisted that their previous ground and air attacks have so far avoided disturbing any holy sites, the Washington Post reports US troops have hit the cemetery with repeated shelling which has unearthed numerous graves. Containing the bodies of up to two million Muslims, the cemetery is among the most revered in Islam.
"We feel bad that we're destroying -- that we're desecrating -- graves and such," Staff Sergeant Thomas Gentry of Pennsylvania told the Post. "That's not what we want to do."
The New York Times reports that the joint offensive was actually postponed Wednesday just minutes before it was to begin. Maj. Holahan acknowledged that the operation had been delayed but not cancelled. "Preparations to do the offensive are taking longer than initially anticipated," he told the AP. "It doesn't matter now, they know we're coming."
According to the Times, the Marines and Army soldiers suspended most of their patrols Wednesday in preparation for the larger assault. The US has roughly 5,000 troops in the area, 3,000 of whom are combat forces, the Times reports. Equipped with heavily armed tanks and backed by helicopter gunships and fighter jets, the American forces possess overwhelming fire power compared to the Mehdi fighters whose main weapons are Kalashnikov rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
In an apparent move to warn residents that an assault was on the way, US forces using loudspeakers Tuesday urged Najaf residents to evacuate the city. Many residents who have grown weary of continued fighting in their city, and who feared mounting civilian casualties had already begun leaving the area last week, the Christian Science Monitor reports.
For his part, Al-Sadr has continued to maintain a defiant posture. He issued a statement Wednesday urging his militia to fight on even if he is killed or captured, according to Agence France-Presse. "I hope that you keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred," the young cleric said.