U.S. troops fight al-Sadr’s militia

NAJAF, Iraq – American tanks firing shells and heavy machine guns made their deepest incursion yet Friday into this stronghold of a radical cleric. Apparent gunfire slightly damaged one of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines, prompting calls for revenge and even suicide attacks.

In response, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militiamen attacked U.S.-led coalition headquarters in Nasiriyah, trapping international staff and some Italian journalists inside. Explosions and gunfire rocked Karbala, and al-Sadr’s top aides threatened to unleash more attacks across the Shiite south and in Baghdad.

“We will fight and defend the holy shrines until our last breath,” al-Sadr said in an interview broadcast late Friday by Al-Arabiya television, widely seen throughout the Middle East. “We are not controlling any holy shrine – we are defending these shrines.”

Several large explosions and the roar of high-flying aircraft could be heard in Baghdad before dawn today. The cause of the blasts was unknown.

The fighting around Najaf, the most important center of Shiite theology and scholarship, unnerved the country’s Shiite majority, including members who have disavowed al-Sadr and worked with U.S. authorities.

Hamid al-Bayati, spokesman for a mainstream Shiite group represented on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, called the fighting a “big mistake” that could inflame sectarian passions. He urged both sides to mediate an end to the standoff.

At least four Iraqis were killed and 26 wounded Friday in Najaf, according to Haidar Raheem Naama, a hospital official. He said most were civilian. One coalition soldier was wounded, U.S. officials said.

At least three militiamen also were killed, and their coffins were brought to the Shrine of Imam Ali for family and friends to pray for their souls. “America is the enemy of God,” fighters shouted.

Explosions and heavy machine-gun fire rocked Najaf for hours, and bands of gunmen carrying assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar tubes roamed the city.

Four holes, each approximately 12 inches long and 8 inches wide, could be seen on the golden dome of the Imam Ali mosque, burial place of Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and the Shiites’ most revered saint.

The mosque, in Najaf, is on a high plateau overlooking the world’s largest cemetery.

Militia members blamed the Americans for the damage to the mosque, but Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said al-Sadr’s men were probably responsible: “I can just tell you by the looks of where we were firing and where Muqtada’s militia was firing, I would put my money that Muqtada caused it.”

Associated Press

Smoke rises above the cemetery in Najaf, Iraq, on Friday as U.S. tanks roll into the city.

U.S. military death

The latest identification reported by the military of U.S. personnel killed in Iraq:

Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Savage, 21, Livingston, Tenn., died Wednesday in fighting in Anbar province; assigned to 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

U.S. military death

The latest identification reported by the military of U.S. personnel killed in Iraq:

Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Savage, 21, Livingston, Tenn., died Wednesday in fighting in Anbar province; assigned to 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

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