Cleric Keeps Grip on Najaf Shrine

By SABRINA TAVERNISE

The New York Times

August 22, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 22 - The Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr remained in control of a holy shrine here on Saturday in defiance of the Iraqi government, even as his aides said they were making arrangements to hand over the shrine to the country's top Shiite leader.

Early Sunday morning American forces mounted their largest attack on Mr. Sadr's guerrillas since the early days of the latest fighting here. Dozens of armored vehicles, including many tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, left the American base at the northern edge of Najaf to attack a buildfing complex just west of the shrine of Imam Ali. Meanwhile, another group of American forces moved closer to the mosque from the south. This pincer movement was a sharp intensification of pressure on Mr. Sadr after two days of relative calm. Commanders here said they were not sure whether the attack would lead to a broader assault or was merely an attempt to demonstrate American militant might.

Mr. Sadr's militiamen still guarded the entrance to the shrine and the narrow streets around it, an area known as the Old City. While his aides said Friday that Mr. Sadr would surrender the keys to the shrine to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, by late Saturday, such a transfer did not appear imminent.

Sheik Ali Smeisim, an aide to Mr. Sadr, said he was waiting for an inventory of the shrine to be carried out before he could hand over the keys.

As for the government's central demand that Mr. Sadr's armed followers leave the shrine altogether, Mr. Smeisim said militiamen would leave the shrine but remain in the areas immediately surrounding it. "But that doesn't mean we're closing the door to negotiations," he said.

Despite the calls for reconciliation from Mr. Sadr's camp, an announcement in Arabic late Saturday afternoon from the shrine's loudspeakers called on militiamen to keep fighting. Mr. Smeisim explained the announcements by saying, "We have to encourage our fighters."

The shrine is at the center of a standoff between Mr. Sadr and the government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who has repeatedly warned the cleric to leave the premises. Mr. Sadr has spurned those requests and for 19 days has continued to call for war against the Americans from his base there.

It appeared that some militiamen were already leaving the shrine, the holiest place for Iraq's Shiites. Inside its blue tiled walls on Saturday, the number of followers of Mr. Sadr who could be seen appeared lower than before, with about 200 men lounging on rugs and praying.

In another sign that at least some of Mr. Sadr's followers were going home, none of the men interviewed in the shrine on Saturday were from Najaf. Militia members from another of Mr. Sadr's strongholds, the Sadr City district of Baghdad, and from the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Basra, talked of their families. Women who were present confided fears about getting home.

"They're surrounding us," said Ali Hussein, 30, from Sadr City.

"There's no water for bathing. People can't get out to go to the hospital."

Mr. Hussein also said fighters could no longer communicate by cellphone, as the service was cut more than a week ago. "Some people have left," he said. A young man walking in a neighborhood just south of the shrine said Mahdi Army fighters had been leaving the area.

Iraq's Health Ministry said at least 21 people had been killed and 5 wounded in fighting in Najaf over the past 24 hours.

Italy's Foreign Ministry said Saturday that an Italian journalist, Enzo Baldoni, who disappeared two days ago on the road to Najaf, was still missing. "We have had no news since Thursday night, but we know that he no longer has a satellite telephone," a ministry spokesman told Agence France-Presse. "The Italian Embassy in Baghdad is in permanent contact with local Iraqi authorities."

Mr. Baldoni, 56, a correspondent for the Italian weekly Diario, left Baghdad for Najaf on Thursday morning with a Red Cross convoy and an Italian television crew. When his traveling companions returned to Baghdad for safety reasons, Mr. Baldoni elected to continue on his own despite the risk.

In Najaf, sporadic skirmishes between Americans and Mahdi militiamen continued in the Judaada neighborhood, just south of the shrine. Mortar and machine-gun fire echoed in the quiet glass-strewn streets Saturday, and tank and mortar fire thudded in the area Saturday night. Mahdi Army fighters said they shot down an American pilotless plane just before sunset. the report could not be immediately verified.

Even so, it did not seem to discourage a few straggling residents from venturing out on Saturday morning. A man rode a bicycle on Rasul Street, where tank tread marks were ground into the asphalt and power lines dangled. Mahdi fighters stood eating bright green frozen pops on a corner close to the American controlled zone. A man and his young son walked down a narrow alley toward their home in the Old City. They went to Baghdad when the fighting began, said the man, Haidar Majid, 24, and returned Saturday to pick up clothes. He said it was not safe enough to return home, as a burst of machine-gun fire drowned out the end of his sentence.

Meanwhile, in other cities in Iraq, violence flared. In neighboring Kufa, seven Mahdi militiamen were killed early on Saturday morning in fighting between American troops and Mahdi rebels.

A Polish soldier was killed and six others were wounded Saturday in a car bomb attack near Hilla in southern Iraq, a Polish military spokesman said, as quoted by the PAP news agency, Agence France-Presse reported. One Iraqi civilian and five others were wounded in an ensuing shootout with Polish soldiers, medical and police officials said in Hilla. The parked car exploded as a 19-truck convoy under the protection of Polish troops was driving by, said Colonel Artur Domanski, the spokesman for the multinational force under Polish command.

Saboteurs detonated an explosive near an oil pumping station in southern Iraq on Saturday but caused only superficial damage, Reuters reported that witnesses said. Reuters Television images showed damage to a wall surrounding Barjasieh station, around 19 miles south of Basra. There was no sign of damage to pipelines and pumps inside.

Followers of Mr. Sadr have threatened to attack oil installations in the south, which account for all Iraqi crude exports, in response to the effort to end his uprising. A main pipeline in the south has been shut since it was attacked Aug. 9, halving the country's exports to a million barrels a day. Gunmen also set fire to the South Oil Company headquarters on Thursday.

Iraqi oil experts on Saturday rebuked an American firm helping rehabilitate Iraq's oil industry, saying it had failed to do an adequate job in the vital sector, The Associated Press reported from Amman, Jordan. Kellogg Brown & Root, which was contracted through the United States Department of Defense, "has not done an excellent job, it has not done a good job at all," said Mohammed Aboush, a former director general of the Iraqi Oil Ministry.

"We have attended several meetings with the firm and set up priorities for work, but we had only schedules and promises, many of them did not materialize," added Mr. Aboush, who said he quit his job with the ministry two months ago. He declined to discuss details. Mustafa al-Bazergan, an Iraqi oil expert, said the United States allocated $809 million through Kellogg Brown & Root - which is based in Houston - for rebuilding Iraqi oil installations and rehabilitating the oil industry.

"But very little was achieved, less than 10 percent," he said. Kellogg Brown & Root is a subsidiary of the Halliburton Company, which has been awarded more than $6 billion in contracts related to the American-led invasion of Iraq, but the company has been under fire for allegedly overcharging the government.