Sat 28 August, 2004 20:01
By Ibon Villelabeitia
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - A team of Iraqi ministers has visited battle-scarred Najaf and is discussing plans for rebuilding the holy city after three weeks of fighting that killed hundreds and drove oil prices to record highs.
The five ministers drove through a shattered urban landscape on Saturday, inspected the city's Imam Ali shrine and held talks with Iraq's most revered Shi'ite leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who brokered a deal to end the clashes.
Fighting between the Mehdi Army militia of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who had been holed up in the shrine during their uprising, and U.S. and Iraqi forces ended on Thursday when Sistani returned after medical treatment in London to Najaf.
"We have come to Najaf to consolidate the peace settlement we reached and to congratulate Sistani," Minister of State Kasim Daoud, who led the delegation, told Reuters.
The ministers arrived outside Najaf in two Black Hawk helicopters and were driven through streets littered with wreckage an d ammunition into its old city in a convoy led by police cars with sirens wailing.
After inspecting the shrine -- the holiest in Shi'ite Islam -- Daoud said it was now free of weapons. He said the government hoped to reopen it to the public within 10 days.
The ministers held a 20-minute meeting with Sistani to discuss the government's plan to rebuild battle-damaged Najaf and to restore water, electricity, sewage and hospital services.
Surveying Najaf streets strewn with mangled vehicles and mortar shells, the ministers promised the city would be rebuilt.
"The destruction is huge," Health Minister Alaadin Alwan said. "Najaf is going to be a big priority in the budget of the government. It needs a great deal of work to rebuild it."
Public Works Minister Nasreen Berwari said the government would "bring Najaf back to what it was before the war".
Under the peace deal brokered by Sistani, Sadr's armed fighters and U.S. forces withdrew from the area and security was handed over to Iraqi pol ice. The government agreed not to arrest Sadr and pledged to fund the city's rebuilding.
Dazed residents said reconstruction would be a huge task.
"The only thing the fighting accomplished was the destruction of Najaf. Look at our hotel. We were just making progress building it," said hotel employee Rafaat Maher, standing on a balcony pockmarked by bullets and looking down on a makeshift roadside graveyard for victims of the fighting.
"They are not rebuilding Iraq. They are destroying it," he said. "I must have seen 100 people buried right there in front of the hotel."
After Saddam Hussein's fall, residents of Najaf hoped for peace and prosperity, with the city's holy sites attracting Shi'ites long oppressed by the former ruler. Hotels and businesses sprang up.
But fighting between Sadr's militiamen and U.S. forces has taken a heavy toll.
At one makeshift graveyard, residents exhumed the bodies of people they said were militants from Sadr's Mehdi Army and a few civilians. The fighters' names were written on pieces of paper stuffed into small medicine bottles and placed above the graves. They were described as "hero martyrs".
Najaf seemed peaceful, but violence elsewhere in Iraq showed the size of the task facing interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi as he prepares for elections in January.
In the Shi'ite slum district of Sadr City in Baghdad -- from where the militant cleric draws much support -- Iraqis clashed with U.S. troops on Saturday, witnesses said, in a reminder that the Najaf peace deal did not end the animosity of Sadr's followers towards the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.
In Falluja, a city west of Baghdad that is seen as a haven for insurgents, U.S. planes bombed targets in an eastern district. Ahmed Ali, a doctor at Falluja hospital, said two women and a man were killed when bombs demolished their house.
U.S. forces have mounted several air raids on Falluja this month, and say they are aiming to destroy foreign fighters loyal to al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In the mixed Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim town of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, six policemen were killed and five wounded when gunmen opened fire on them, police said.
And in the northern city of Mosul, gunmen shot dead a university lecturer, ambushing her as she drove to work, police and witnesses said.
Police also fought a gunbattle with U.S. troops in the oil hub of Kirkuk, police Colonel Farhat Qader said, describing the incident as "a mistake". He said two policemen were badly wounded in the battle and six others arrested by U.S. troops.
A mortar attack in the town of Baiji, north of Baghdad, killed an Iraqi civilian and wounded a civilian and a policeman, the U.S. military said. Several people were also wounded in mortar attacks in Baghdad.