Sat 21 August, 2004 17:05
By Michael Georgy
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Fighters loyal to Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have retained their grip on the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, dampening hopes that talks with religious authorities would quickly end a two-week siege.
Militiamen brandished weapons around the mosque, the centre of a bloody uprising by radical Shi'ite Muslims that has helped drive oil prices to record highs and presented the U.S.-backed interim government with is biggest crisis yet.
"Bring those Americans here to fight hand to hand," said one militant, biting his finger for emphasis. "They are cowards. They stay thousands of feet away in their airplanes. They are scared, they know we will slaughter them."
Aside from sporadic exchanges of gunfire and a U.S. tank firing a few shells, Najaf was relatively calm on Saturday, a stark contrast to heavy fighting earlier this week.
In nearby Kufa, where Sadr has in the past led prayers at the mosque, witnesses said U.S. forces clashed with militiamen.
Holding out hope for a peaceful resolution, one of Sadr's top aides said the rebel leader wanted to hand over the keys to the Imam Ali shrine, Iraq's holiest Shi'ite site, to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Sistani, the most influential cleric in the majority Shi'ite country, is in London recovering from surgery.
"We would like to hand over the shrine to the religious establishment which has the right to control it," Sheikh Ahmad al-Sheibani told reporters, adding that talks on the mosque's future had begun.
But Sheibani later added that Sadr's militia would continue to guard the mosque after any handover, precisely the outcome that the two-month-old government has vowed to prevent.
"The Mehdi Army will continue to defend the shrine and Najaf, all of Najaf because it is a holy city," Sheibani said.
A source close to the talks said negotiations over the handover had hit a snag, although he did not say why. "Contacts are continuing, but there is a problem," the source said.
It was unclear whether Sadr's insistence that his fi ghters remain at the mosque, where they have been fighting off U.S. and Iraqi government forces, was hampering negotiations.
In the shrine, a teenager hacked with a pick at a block of ice to help cool Sadr's fighters, who yelled slogans vilifying Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who has called on them to lay down their weapons and leave.
"We are winning, we will win over Iyad Allawi and the traitors collaborating with the Americans," they chanted.
Some held banners that said: "Where is the bullet that will grant me martyrdom?"
Sadr's uprising has fuelled fears of disruption to Iraqi oil production and has helped push world crude prices to new highs. Saboteurs detonated an explosive near an oil pumping station in southern Iraq on Saturday but caused only minor damage, said witnesses.
Confusion over control of the mosque swirled on Friday as the revolt, in which hundreds have died, entered its third week. The Interior Ministry said police had entered the shrine without firing a shot, a claim q uickly denied by Sadr's aides.
A bloodless seizure of the mosque would have been a big political victory for Allawi. Since taking over from U.S. occupiers on June 28 he has struggled to end an insurgency and the Sadr-inspired Shi'ite rebellion in eight cities.
Iraq's Health Ministry said on Saturday at least 21 Iraqis had been killed and five wounded in Najaf over the past 24 hours. Three people were killed in Baghdad, where U.S. troops have fought Shi'ite gunmen in the Sadr City slum.
The U.S. military said insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. military vehicle in southern Baghdad on Saturday, killing one soldier and wounding two others.
In a separate attack, two U.S. soldiers were killed and three wounded on Friday by a roadside bomb near Samarra.
The attacks brought to 711 the number of U.S. troops killed in action in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion last year. One Polish soldier was killed and six wounded on Saturday when a booby-trapped car exploded next to their convoy near the town of Hilla, an army spokesman said.
The soldier's death brings the number of Polish fatalities in Iraq to 14 since Poland took charge of the 8,000-strong multinational force in south-central Iraq last September.
In the western town of Ramadi, police said the head of the criminal investigation unit, Saad Samir, was shot dead on Saturday, although the reason for the attack was not immediately clear. Insurgents have often targeted Iraqi security forces.