New York Times
May 19, 2004
By Edward Wong
The country's most influential cleric called Tuesday for the withdrawal of all armies from two holy cities, Karbala and Najaf, in an effort to end days of bloody fighting and preserve the sanctity of Shiite shrines.
The Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, demanded in a statement that "armed forces" must "leave the holy cities and open the way for the police and tribal forces." His remarks were directed at both American troops and militiamen loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, a young rebel cleric who ignited an insurrection against the occupation forces six weeks ago.
Ayatollah Sistani also asked people to stage peaceful protests in the cities against the fighting.
In a parallel development, two of Washington's strongest allies in Iraq, Italy and Poland, called for the transfer of real authority to the Iraqis on June 30.
American and other occupation troops have been clashing in cities across southern Iraq with rebel Shiite militias.
The fiercest battles have been in Karbala, where American soldiers are dug in at a mosque once held by the insurgents. Last Friday, violence erupted in the sprawling cemetery near the center of Najaf, as American tanks encircled the area to kill militiamen who were firing mortars from among the graves.
The battles have been inching ever closer to the Shrine of Ali in Najaf and the Shrines of Hussein and Abbas in Karbala, dedicated to the three most revered martyrs of Shiite Islam.
Ayatollah Sistani's statement, issued by his office, was his strongest criticism of the fighting between the Americans and Mr. Sadr. Though Ayatollah Sistani is believed to dislike Mr. Sadr, and the Americans are relying on him to rein in the rebel cleric, the ayatollah noticeably did not single out either side. The Shiite religious establishment has yet to condemn Mr. Sadr, presumably because senior clerics are reluctant to turn on one of their own.
Some clerics have already asked Mr. Sadr to withdraw from the holy cities, but he has yet to comply, and it is unlikely that he will heed Ayatollah Sistani's demands, even though he has said he will disarm his militia if the grand ayatollahs demand it.
Mr. Sadr's influence is based on the popularity of his martyred father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who denounced Ayatollah Sistani and other senior clerics for what he called their complacency in the face of Saddam Hussein's oppression.
On Tuesday afternoon, occupation officials said they had not received a copy of Ayatollah Sistani's statement. "We have to obviously look closely at it, make a determination as to whether or not Ayatollah Sistani has expressed wishes on this particular issue," said Dan Senor, a spokesman for the occupation.
An American officer said in an interview in Karbala that the military would press its campaign against Mr. Sadr.
"He is going to either have his militia lay down their arms, or we're going to defeat them," said the officer, Brig. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, assistant division commander for support of the First Armored Division, which is trying to crush Mr. Sadr's forces.
General Hertling, on a visit from Baghdad, said there were indications that a steady flow of fighters from outside the cities was bolstering the insurgent Mahdi Army, which is generally made up of young, poor Shiite men. The general declined to give more details on the fighters, but field commanders here in Karbala said members of Mr. Hussein's elite Special Republican Guard, mostly well-trained Sunni Arab warriors, could be joining the insurgent forces here.
After American soldiers occupied the Mukhaiyam Mosque in downtown Karbala, an insurgent stronghold, on May 12, they found identification cards that an Iraqi interpreter said were Iranian. The military is still examining the cards and other documents to determine their origins, said Capt. Noel Gorospe, a spokesman for the First Armored Division.
While Ayatollah Sistani's demands would hold little sway with non-Shiite insurgents, among many Shiites his word as a member of the marjaiah, a council of four grand ayatollahs of Najaf, is tantamount to an edict from Allah. Many Sunni Muslims also respect him, but they do not accord him the same level of reverence.
In his statement, the ayatollah also asked people to stay away from the Shrine of Ali in Najaf because of the potential for danger there, and he called for a demonstration in Karbala on Wednesday morning to protest the violence in the two holy cities.
Occupation forces and insurgents have battled each other on the very edge of the Shrine of Hussein here in Karbala. American commanders say insurgents are firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades from the shrine area and from a second-floor window in the shrine itself.
Early Monday morning, the Americans called in an airstrike on insurgents about 160 feet from the shrine, pounding them with 40-millimeter cannon fire from an AC-130 gunship.
Few Iraqis have protested such attacks despite the proximity of the strikes to the holy sites, a possible indication of the unpopularity of Mr. Sadr and his militia.
American officers here say the best evidence that outside fighters are working with the Mahdi Army is the obvious skill of some of the insurgents, especially the snipers. Mortar fire has become very precise.
American soldiers killed at least three militiamen in fighting on Tuesday, military officials reported.
[Early Wednesday, four Iraqis were killed in clashes between American troops and followers of Mr. Sadr near the Shrine of Hussein, Reuters reported, quoting hospital officials.]
General Hertling rode in a convoy of Humvees down to the Mukhaiyam Mosque on Tuesday afternoon to survey the scene. Two M-113 armored personnel carriers were parked on the edges of the courtyard, which was covered with glass and rubble from the constant mortar shelling. Toilet stalls along one side of the courtyard reeked of human waste.
In a four-story hotel adjacent to the mosque, soldiers crouched behind machine guns and sandbags and stared through holes in the walls at the dense cityscape. Two Polish snipers stood in one room, their rifles trained east, in the direction of the holy shrines. Automatic gunfire could be heard in the distance.
"Right now, we just need to be able to go into the city," said Lt. Col. Garry R. Bishop, referring to the central shrine area. "They're using it as a sanctuary."
He said the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an influential Shiite party, had promised it would keep the Mahdi Army from entering the shrines. For whatever reason, it failed to do so.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company