Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 11, 2004; 10:55 AM
NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 10 -- Solemn-faced U.S. Marines and soldiers prepared for what appeared to be a decisive battle for Najaf, the holiest city in Iraq, while the supreme leader of neighboring Iran warned that U.S. combat operations in Najaf constitute "one of the darkest crimes of humanity."
"The United States is slaughtering the people of one of the holiest Islamic cities and the Muslim world and the Iraqi nation will not stand by," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an address broadcast on Iranian state television, according to the official government news agency.
Najaf is home to the shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most revered sites to Shiite Muslims. Shiites constitute a majority in both Iraq and Iran, a theocracy where Khamenei holds ultimate power. The last time U.S. forces were in combat in Najaf, in April and May, a group in Iran began collecting names of volunteers for suicide bombings aimed at the Americans.
"These crimes are a dark blemish which will never be wiped from the face of America. They commit these crimes and shamelessly talk of democracy," said Khamenei. "Shame has no place in their vocabulary."
The Iranian spoke as U.S. Marines and soldiers busied themselves cleaning weapons, refitting equipment and loading ammunition, food and -- most important in the extreme desert heat -- water and ice into the armored vehicles that could soon carry them to a decisive battle with the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr that is holding Iraq's holiest city.
"Iraqi and U.S. forces are making final preparations as we get ready to finish this fight that the Moqtada militia started," Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said in a statement.
"The desired end state is one of stability and security, where the citizens of Najaf do not live in fear of violence or kidnappings, and where the city of Najaf can once again return to peace and prosperity," the statement said.
It came one day after U.S. forces circulated with loudspeakers urging residents to evacuate the holy city of 600,000 and advising members of the Sadr's Mahdi Army to lay down their arms.
The Marines are backed by three battalions from the 1st Cavalry Division, called in after the militia resumed an uprising here six days ago. Two days of pitched fighting in a vast cemetery here have been followed by several days of less intense combat as senior officers and Iraqi officials huddled to prepare plans to re-take the city.
On the chow line at Forward Operating Base Hotel, the dusty compound on Najaf's north side from which most of the patrols are launched, three Marine captains apologized for cutting in line by saying they were planning officers and had not slept in three days.
"Obviously the Marines are preparing to conduct combat operations," said Maj. David Holahan, executive officer of the Marine unit. Any assault would be intended to return control of the city to authorized Iraqi forces, commanders said.
The latest crisis began a week ago, when several of the city's police stations came under assault by Moqtada Sadr's militia. The Mahdi Army militia, named for a messianic figure in the Shiite tradition, has used the shrine of Imam Ali and the vast adjoining cemetery as a fire base against the U.S.-led forces. U.S. commanders have made clear the shrine is off limits to American forces.
A battalion of U.S.-trained Iraqi forces is on standby in the area.
The crisis also appears to have created cracks in Iraq's interim government, after vice president Ibrahim Jafari urged U.S. troops to leave Najaf to end the fighting.
"I call for multinational forces to leave Najaf and for only Iraqi forces to remain there," Jafari said in remarks broadcast on al-Jazeera satellite television network on Wednesday. "Iraqi forces can administer Najaf to end this phenomenon of violence in this city that is holy to all Muslims."
"Keep fighting even if you see me a prisoner or a martyr. God willing you will be victorious," Sadr said in a statement from Najaf reported by the Reuters news service.
In fresh violence elsewhere, Reuters reported that at least six Iraqis were killed and 10 wounded when a bomb exploded in a market north of Baghdad on Wednesday.