US bombs Najaf as civilians urged to leave

By Donald Macintyre in Baghdad

The Independent

11 August 2004

American warplanes began bombarding insurgent positions in Najaf last night and troops used loudspeakers to urge civilians to leave the area after the sixth successive day of fighting between US Marines and Shia gunmen.

The battle for control of the holy Shia city intensified after helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks were used to try to clear the city's hallowed cemetery - the graveyard is a hideout of militiamen led by the cleric Muqtada Sadr.

In Najaf, now the focal point of the 15-month insurgency against the presence of US, British and other foreign forces in Iraq, witnesses reported plumes of smoke rising above the cemetery and said that Sadr's Mehdi Army had attacked an Iraqi police checkpoint in the city, killing and wounding several uniformed men.

Some residents said the loudspeaker appeals to civilians - which were coupled with exhortations to the insurgents to lay down their arms and leave the combat zone - were the first of their kind and said they feared it could lead to a full-scale assault on the militia positions. One message called on residents to co-operate with US and Iraqi forces and added: "There will be no truce or negotiations with terrorists." As the fighting entered a new phase, Captain Tony Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Najaf, urged the insurgents to stop using positions in and around the Imam ali Shrine, the holiest Shia Muslim site in Iraq, to launch attacks on the 4,000 US and Iraqi forces in the area.

He declared: "We will not allow them to continue to desecrate this sacred site, using it as an insurgent base of operations. There will be no sanctuary for thugs and criminals in Najaf."

While US forces maintain they have killed 360 insurgents in Najaf since the fighting began on Thursday, no firm casualty figures were immediately available from the intense fighting in the city yesterday. But the Iraqi health ministry said that nine people had also been killed and 92 wounded in fresh fighting in the Shia Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, as well as in the southern cities of Basra and Diwaniya.

The US military said that a morning roadside bomb aimed at a US convoy had exploded near hotels used by foreigners in Baghdad after a night which saw a dozen rocket and mortar attacks on the heavily fortified "green zone" housing the British and US embassies and other official buildings. In Sadr City, US jets flew overhead and witnesses reported that American forces fired a missile into a residential area, destroying an empty house, after a US patrol came under fire.

A Sadr aide, Qais al-Khazali, declared: "What is going on in Najaf and elsewhere is mass killing by the Americans and the so-called interim government."

With more than a dozen foreign kidnapped hostages still unaccounted for, an Islamic web- site yesterday carried a videotape appearing to show the beheading of a man who was described as an "Egyptian spy". The tape, purportedly made by the Tawhid and Jihad Group, led by al-Qa'ida ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, showed the man giving his name as Mohammed Mutawalli and saying he had helped US forces pick targets for their attacks on insurgents. He is heard saying: "I worked as a spy for the Americans in Iraq ... and I used to take women to the Americans at the airport to do with them as they wished."

In one respite, it was reported Iraq was preparing to resume full oil exports after shutting one of two pipelines feeding its southern terminal, which had been shut as a security precaution because of fighting.

Relatively minor damage to a larger pipeline that was shut after it was attacked on Monday had been repaired and should be able to operate normally from today, a South Oil official said. The pipeline closure resulted in a dramatic increase in world oil prices on Monday.