Iraqi vice-president calls on US troops to leave Najaf

By Mark Turner in Baghdad

Financial Times

Published: August 11 2004 09:07

Iraq's interim vice-president on Wednesday called on foreign troops to leave the holy Shia city of Najaf, as American commanders said they were readying US and Iraqi forces for a final push against the rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Adding to international concern over the pending showdown, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, denounced the assault as one of the darkest crimes of humanity, and a dark blemish which will never be wiped from the face of America.

Ibrahim Jaafari, one of Iraq's two vice-presidents, is a leader of the Islamist Dawa party and has topped opinion polls as Iraq's most popular politician. I call for multinational forces to leave Najaf and for only Iraqi forces to remain there, he told al-Jazeera television. Iraqi forces can administer Najaf to end this phenomenon of violence in this city that is holy to all Muslims.

His demands were at odds with previous government warnings that it did not have the capacity to stop Mr Sadr alone. Diplomats suggested they could reflect political positioning ahead of elections scheduled for January.

But the statement also highlighted the disunity among Iraq's interim leadership, reflecting growing Shia concern over recent developments, and rising tensions with Iran. Sciri, the other major Iraqi Islamist Shia party, has also condemned the excessive use of forcein Najaf, although it has called on Mr Sadr to disarm.

Adding to the turbulence, Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi National Congress leader who has restyled himself as a unifying Shia politician, returned to Baghdad from Iran on Wednesday. The Iraqi authorities have threatened to arrest him on counterfeiting charges. The US military signalled on Wednesday that it was in no mood to back down. Iraqi and US forces are making final preparations as we get ready to finish this fight that the Moqtada [al-Sadr] militia started, said Colonel Anthony Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Najaf. He said his forces would take great care to avoid disturbing holy sites.

Mr Sadr urged the Mahdi army to stay firm. Keep fighting even if you see me a prisoner or a martyr. God willing you will be victorious, he said. Clashes also broke out in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, and in the southern towns of Kut and Amara, while demonstrators in Nassiriya torched prime minister Iyad Allawi's political party office and called for his downfall.

Falah al-Mahani, the top health official in Najaf, warned of a real catastrophe for emergency services. Ambulances are prevented from reaching the injured people by the clashing parties. We are paralysed, he said. There were reports of residents fleeing to the nearby city of Karbala.

Analysts fear that even if the government makes an example of Mr Sadr's forces, it will not ease tensions among Iraq's disaffected youth, who are suffering from wide-scale unemployment and poor services.

The violence also bodes ill for Iraq's national conference, due to start this weekend. The conference was intended to offer a peaceful forum for dialogue between Iraq's diverse communities.