Iraq Cleric Vows Fight to Death Against U.S.

By ABDUL HUSSEIN AL-OBEIDI

Associated Press Writer

5:59 AM PDT, August 9, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — A radical cleric whose loyalists battled U.S. troops for the fifth straight day vowed Monday to fight to the death, and a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb northeast of the capital, killing six people and wounding the deputy governor who was the intended target, officials said.

Explosions and gunfire were heard throughout Najaf and U.S. helicopters hovered overhead as U.S. forces tried to drive Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen from a vast cemetery they have repeatedly used as a base. A U.S. tank rolled within 400 yards of Najaf's holiest site, the Imam Ali Shrine, also held by militiamen.

A Najaf hospital spokesman said three were killed, including two policemen, and 19 wounded. The U.S. military says hundreds of militants have been killed in the violence in recent days; the militiamen put the number far lower.

Al-Sadr vowed to keep up the battle.

"I will continue fighting," al-Sadr told reporters. "I will remain in Najaf city until the last drop of my blood has been spilled."

Iraq's defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, accused neighboring Iran of helping arm the Shiite militiamen.

"There are Iranian-made weapons that have been found in the hands of criminals in Najaf who received these weapons from across the Iranian border," Shaalan said in an interview with the Arab-language television network al-Arabiya.

Iran has previously denied interfering in Iraq, though it has acknowledged that fighters might be crossing its long border into Iraq illegally.

Government officials have said many of those involved in the Najaf violence were criminals and implied they were not true followers of the popular Shiite firebrand. But al-Sadr said the militants were his followers and described them as volunteers fighting for an honorable cause.

"These are honest attacks against the occupation," he said, referring to the U.S. troop presence in the country. "They ... are coming to resist the occupation, to liberate our country."

"Resistance will con tinue and increase day by day," he said. "Our demand is for the American occupation to get out of Iraq. We want an independent, democratic, free country."

Al-Sadr's words were a challenge to interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who visited the war-shattered city Sunday under heavy security and called on the Shiite militants to stop fighting.

"We think that those armed should leave the holy sites and the (Imam Ali Shrine compound) as well as leave their weapons and abide by the law," he said.

Much of the fighting has centered on the vast cemetery near the Imam Ali Shrine. U.S. forces using helicopter gunships launched a renewed offensive Sunday to drive militants out of the cemetery after claiming two days earlier to have secured the area in some of the fiercest fighting.

On Monday, a U.S. tank approached within about 400 yards of the shrine compound, the closest the military has come to it in the fighting.

"We cannot conduct negotiations under shelling," al-Sadr said. "T he Americans are shelling the most holy place here in Najaf and they want me to negotiate? This is ridiculous."

Mahdi Army militiamen in Baghdad kidnapped a senior Iraqi policeman, Brig. Raed Mohammed Khudair, who is responsible for all police patrols in eastern Baghdad, said Col. Adnan Abdel Rahman, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

In a video broadcast on Al-Jazeera television, militants demanded the government release all Mahdi Army prisoners in exchange for Khudair, whom they snatched Sunday.

Iraq's Interior Ministry clamped a curfew Monday on Sadr City, a Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad where U.S. troops and al-Sadr militiamen have also been fighting. The curfew, imposed for "security reasons," will run from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m., the ministry announced.

In the southern city of Basra, masked al-Sadr followers patrolled some main streets Monday and set up checkpoints. No Iraqi police or British troops could be seen, witnesses said.

The Mahdi Army threatened Mo nday to take over local government buildings in Basra if U.S. troops did not leave Najaf, and also said they would target oil pipelines and ports in southern Iraq.

Also Monday, the military reported that a U.S. Marine was killed in action Sunday in the western province of Anbar. Anbar is a Sunni Muslim-dominated area of anti-U.S. resistance that includes Fallujah, Ramadi and Qaim on the Syrian border.

The death brought to at least 927 the number of American servicemembers who have died in Iraq.

The Shiite violence began Thursday in Najaf after the collapse of a series of truces that ended a two-month uprising in early June. A deadline for militants to withdraw from Najaf, the center of the worst violence, expired Saturday.

The car bombing in Balad Ruz, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, targeted the home of Diyala province's deputy governor, Aqil Hamid al-Adili, who was in stable condition and was being treated at a U.S.-led coalition medical facility, military spokesman Maj. Neal O'Brien said.

Six Iraqi policemen were killed and at least 17 people wounded, including police and passers-by, Police Brig. Daoud Mahmoud said.

A white station wagon laden with explosives blew up outside al-Adili's home, shattering windows and blowing the doors off their hinges. Al-Adili's 9-year-old son was lightly injured, Mahmoud said.

Guerrillas waging a yearlong insurgency in Iraq have repeatedly used car bombs to attack top officials of the interim government, Iraqi security forces and American troops.

Meanwhile, Iran confirmed Monday that Faridoun Jihani, the Iranian consul to the Iraqi city of Karbala, had been kidnapped, and said he was in good health.

"Iran will do its best to secure the release of the kidnapped Iranian diplomat," the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi as saying.

Jihani's kidnappers, in a video released Saturday, accused Iran of meddling in Iraq's affairs. Scores of other foreigners hav e been kidnapped as leverage to force foreign troops and businesses from the country.

In an video posted on the Internet, militants beheaded a hostage identified only as a Bulgarian. Two Bulgarian truck drivers were kidnapped June 29, and the beheaded body of one of the drivers was found in mid July and a tape was released showing his death.

A second decapitated body was found late last month, prompting fears that the other Bulgarian had been killed, but there was no video of his slaying released at the time.