Fri 20 August, 2004 18:54
By Michael Georgy
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Shi'ite fighters appeared still to be in control of a holy shrine in Najaf after Iraq's interim government said it had overcome a bloody uprising by seizing the Imam Ali mosque without a shot being fired.
Witnesses in the southern city said on Friday that Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr controlled the narrow alleyways leading to the mosque. Police were nowhere to be seen.
Iraqi police in Najaf told CNN they did not control the site, the country's holiest Shi'ite shrine, the broadcaster reported.
Amid the extraordinary confusion over a two-week rebellion that has killed hundreds and driven world oil prices to record highs, the U.S. military also said it could not confirm the government had taken control of the shrine peacefully.
A senior Interior Ministry spokesman earlier said police had entered the shrine and arrested hundreds of militiamen.
Any bloodless seizure of the mosque would be a major political victory for interim Pr ime Minister Iyad Allawi, who since taking over from U.S. occupiers on June 28 has struggled to stem an insurgency and now a Shi'ite revolt in eight cities.
But soon after the seizure was announced, a senior Sadr aide said the statement was untrue.
"The shrine is in the control of the Mehdi Army," said Sheikh Ahmad al-Sheibani, a top militia commander. "The Mehdi Army will resist any attempt by the Iraqi police to control the shrine."
"Procedures are under way to hand over control of the shrine to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani," he added, referring to Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric.
Sistani told his aides in Najaf to prepare to accept the keys to the mosque, a London-based spokesman for Sistani said.
U.S. Rear Admiral Greg Slavonic said he could not confirm the Najaf mosque was in government hands. He added there were rumours Sadr had fled but his whereabouts were unknown.
"We have no confirmation or intelligence on where he may be," Slavonic said.
At least 77 Iraqis were killed and around 70 wounded in ferocious U.S. air strikes and heavy fighting in the previous 24 hours in the city, health officials said.
The uprising helped drive world oil prices to new record highs, with U.S. crude hitting more than $49 a barrel on Friday.
Insurgents in Iraq have waged a campaign of kidnapping aimed at driving out individuals, companies and troops supporting U.S. forces and the new Baghdad administration. An Islamist group has seized 12 Nepali workers because of their cooperation with U.S. forces, an statement issued on the Internet said on Friday.
SADR URGED TO SURRENDER
The Interior Ministry spokesman, Sabah Kadhim, appealed to Sadr, who has become the face of resistance to U.S. and Iraqi authorities, to turn himself in.
"The Iraqi police are now in control of the shrine, along with the religious authorities," he said.
Kadhim said Sadr might have escaped overnight and urged him to surrender so he might be covered by an amnesty Allawi has offered to some of those opposing his government.
Allaw i had pledged his forces would not storm the site.
"We are not going to attack the mosque, we are not going to attack Moqtada al-Sadr in the mosque," the interim prime minister told BBC radio, adding Sadr's militia had wired it up with explosives.
Sadr's offer to hand control of the shrine to Shi'ite religious authorities and Allawi's conciliatory statement followed the most intense U.S. bombardment of Mehdi militia positions since the conflict erupted.
U.S. AC-130 and helicopter gunships had struck repeatedly overnight and early on Friday, sending orange flashes and white sparks into the sky. Booming explosions shook houses far from the battle zone. The attacks had eased at daybreak.
The Mehdi Army had been entrenched inside the shrine and the narrow alleyways leading to it, along with an adjoining ancient cemetery. Witnesses had said there were several hundred fighters inside the sprawling mosque complex.
The militia has been running the shrine since an earlier uprising in April. It marks the tomb of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib -- the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad.
Mohammed Jassim, a father of eight, shook his head as he stood on a Najaf street corner, gunfire crackling overhead and tank shells rocking the ground.
"I really don't believe any news anymore," he said. "We have heard it all before from both sides. We are not living like humans."