US tanks converge on Najaf shrine

REUTERS

Sun 22 August, 2004 14:43

By Michael Georgy

NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. tanks have rumbled to within 800 meters of a holy shrine in the Iraqi city of Najaf as fierce clashes with Shi'ite rebels in a nearby town killed at least 40 Iraqis, officials said.

Talks to end a near three-week Shi'ite Muslim uprising led by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr appeared to have stalled on Sunday after negotiators failed to agree on how to surrender control of the Imam Ali shrine, where Mehdi militias remain holed up.

In Najaf's old city, Mehdi militias fired mortars at U.S. positions and the sound of gunfire crackled from near the shrine. U.S. helicopter gunships clattered above the labyrinth of narrow streets not far from the gold-dome mosque.

Near Najaf, clashes between U.S. troops and militias on Saturday killed 40 people in the town of Kufa, a Shi'ite stronghold from where Sadr has led Friday prayers. Interior Ministry officials said the dead were militiamen and civilians.

Earlier on Sunday, a U.S. military AC-130 gunship unleashed rapi d cannon and howitzer fire on rebels in Najaf.

The escalation of violence came as negotiators try to hammer out the terms of a handover of the mosque by Sadr's forces to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected Shi'ite cleric.

Sadr, a firebrand cleric in his 30s, has insisted that the 73-year-old Sistani send a delegation to take an inventory of precious items in the mosque -- thought to include jewellery, relics and carpets -- to head off any claim that Sadr's men had stolen anything from the shrine.

Sistani, who is London recovering from surgery, has said he cannot form the committee in the current circumstances. Sadr's aides had earlier said that his militia would continue to guard the mosque after any handover, defying calls from the interim government to disband and vacate the mosque.

The uprising, in which hundreds have died, has helped drive world oil prices to record highs and is a brazen challenge to the authority of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who took over from U.S.-led occupiers onl y two months ago.

Allawi had threatened to storm the mosque, but any bloody takeover could infuriate Iraq's majority Shi'ite population and further destabilise the country ahead of scheduled elections in January. The mosque is the holiest Shi'ite shrine in Iraq.

PILGRIM'S CITY A NO-MAN'S LAND

North of Baghdad, a suicide car bomb blew up near a convoy carrying Iraqi officials near the restive town of Baquba, killing two people and wounding eight, a police officer said.

The car bomber appeared to have been targeting Ghasan al-Ghadren, the town's deputy mayor, police said. The official was slightly wounded, the health ministry said.

Almost three weeks of fighting has turned Najaf, home to 500,000 people, into a war-shattered ghost city. Residents brave mortars and gunfire every day.

Navigating a rickety donkey cart past the front lines, Khudeir Salman, who scratched a living selling blocks of ice, said he gave up when he found the body of another ice seller killed by a sniper.

"I found him this mor ning. The sniper shot the donkey too. Even the ambulance drivers are too scared to retrieve the body," said Salman.

Nine Iraqis were killed and 27 others were injured in fighting in Najaf in the last 24 hours as of Sunday morning, the health ministry said.

On Sunday, Polish Defence Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski made an unscheduled visit to troops in Iraq, affirming Poland's determination to maintain its role in the country.

Three Polish soldiers have died in attacks since Thursday, bringing the total number of Polish fatalities to 14 since Poland took charge of the 8,000-strong multinational force in Shi'ite dominated south-central Iraq last September.

In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry said two French journalists, George Malbrunot of Le Figaro and Christian Chesnot of Radio France International, were missing in Iraq and had not been heard from since Thursday.

The Italian government said freelance Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, who had been working in Najaf had been missing since Thursday and his driver had reportedly been killed.