Iraq on a knife-edge

By Donald Macintyre in Baghdad

The Independent

10 August 2004

The new Iraq was on a knife-edge last night as violence and political instability confronted the regime of Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister.

In Basra, a British soldier was killed and several others were wounded. Army Land Rovers were set on fire in clashes with militia loyal to the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr, leaving the militia in control of the city's main road junctions.

The world oil price climbed to a new high of $44.98 a barrel ­ closing later at $44.80 ­ as oil facilities were targeted by the same militia and Iraq stopped pumping oil in its strategic southern oil fields.

In the Shia holy city of Najaf there were fierce clashes for the fifth consecutive day between US soldiers and Sadr insurgents who have vowed to fight to the death. The fighting has claimed 360 lives since Thursday, according to the US military.

In Baghdad a curfew was imposed on the Shia suburb of Sadr City because of intense fighting between Sadr's militia and US forces. In the Baquba area, seven people were killed and 17 were wounded, including the assistant governor of Diyala province, in a suicide car bomb attack.

Meanwhile, moves against Ahmed Chalabi, the man once seen as the most likely prime minister of a post-Saddam Iraq, were denounced as politically motivated. Mr Chalabi has been accused of counterfeiting, while his nephew, Salem Chalabi, the head of the tribunal trying Saddam, is wanted for murder.

The crisis across the country prompted a determined new stand from Mr Allawi. His administration approved, in principle, attacks on the compound containing the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, which the US military said was being used as a base for attacks by insurgents. Almost 4,000 US and Iraqi forces confronted about 2,000 militiamen dug in around the holy sites in the heart of Najaf, which since Thursday has become the focal point of the new Iraqi state's efforts to defeat a 15-month-old insurgency.

The day after Mr Allawi warned on a visit to the city that there would be "no negotiations or truce" with leaders of the armed rebellion, an equally uncompromising Muqtada Sadr declared: "I will continue fighting. I will remain in Najaf until the last drop of my blood has been spilt."

Mr Allawi's government ordered a nightly, 14-hour curfew in Sadr City, scene of repeated clashes between American forces and gunmen loyal to the cleric since the fighting began in Najaf last week.

As US and Iraqi forces fought to clear sections of Najaf's ancient cemetery of gunmen and weapons, seven Iraqi policemen were killed when an early morning roadside bomb exploded close to the home of the assistant governor of Diyala in the village of Balad Ruz, just east of Baghdad. Hakil Hamid Barias was wounded. A senior military official yesterday stood by the so-far uncorroborated and contested death toll for the fighting in Najaf issued by the US Marines last Friday and said that 360 insurgents had now been killed since the fighting began. The official said that five US troops and at least four Iraqi National Guardsmen had also been killed but gave no estimate of possible civilian casualties.

The official added that the governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, who met Mr Allawi on Sunday, had "given us approval to conduct operations in and around the [Imam Ali] shrine. We have elected at this point not to conduct operations there, although we are prepared to do so at a moment's notice."

He said that about 2,000 US Marines, supported by US Calvary units and 1,800 Iraqi National Guards (ING) and police were now massed at the city. The official said US and Iraqi forces had been moving into the cemetery to clear an area but "as they pull back the Mehdi militia will come back into the cemetery and continue to launch attacks. The primary objective right now is to take additional ground from these insurgents."

The official insisted that by using the holy sites ­ including the mosque at its heart ­ as a base, the insurgents had forfeited the sites' protection under international law. Nevertheless according to some military sources here, senior US officers remain highly aware of the incalculable sensitivities that an all-out assault on the holy sites would inflame, posing an acute dilemma on how to defeat the insurgents without provoking a storm of protest throughout the Muslim world.

Some observers believe the arrest warrants issued at the weekend against Ahmed and Salem Chalabi could boost the new Prime Minister's reputation as a strong leader. Both men ­ who are not in Iraq at present ­ rejected the charges. Ahmed Chalabi said he "could easily prove" that the charges were untrue and he intended to defend himself and clear his name.

Salem Chalabi suggested that the charges had been "trumped up by Baathists" anxious to undermine the trial of Saddam.

• Four lorry drivers, two Jordanians and two Lebanese, who were being held hostage by Iraqi insurgents were freed yesterday, relatives of the men said. They were released after the company that employed them agreed to end its operations in Iraq.