When U.S. troops backed by helicopter gunships attacked the Mehdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the holy Shia city of Najaf, it is not clear who they killed.
The US military says 64 Iraqi fighters were killed, but hospital officials in Najaf told the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera that several casualties appeared to be civilians.
On the other hand the overnight shelling in the predominantly Sunni city Fallujah is also reported to have led to several casualties. The US troops are now taking on Shia fighters in Najaf and resistance in Fallujah about the same time.
Increasingly there are reports of mutual sympathy between Shia and Sunni resistance. Much of the resistance to US forces in Fallujah came earlier from al-Sadr’s group within the so-called Sunni triangle. As some distinctions get blurred, more and more people speak of the US forces attacking Iraqis.
The US forces are not deterred. “We’re going to drive this guy Sadr into the dirt,” Brigadier-General Mark Herling told reporters. “Either he tells his militia to put down their arms, form a political party and fight with ideas not guns, or he’s going to find a lot of them killed.”
The fighting Monday night marks the first time US troops tried to enter Najaf, moving into a Spanish military base on the edge of the city as 1,400 soldiers from Spain, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic pull out of Iraq.
This is the spot where gun battles first erupted at the start of this month after US forces closed Sadr’s newspaper al-Hawza and arrested one of his top lieutenants. After that, occupation authorities produced an arrest warrant for al-Sadr and announced they would not rest until he was captured or killed. Shia forces loyal to him have been facing US attacks ever since.
“What we are concerned about mainly is the safety of the people and the religious shrines in Najaf and Karbala,” says Dr. Sa’ad Jawad Kindil of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which has a seat on the Iraqi Governing Council.
The SCIRI, a leading Shia organization in a country where the Shias are in majority, and said to have Iranian backing, is trying to mediate between the Muqtada al-Sadr and the US military. “The religious magi, Grand Ayatolla Ali Sistani and others have called on all parties with guns to get out of the towns and that includes the American Army,” Kindil told IPS.
He says a US withdrawal from Najaf represents the best hope of protecting the people and the sacred shrine of Imam Ali.
“Any outlaw memorandum against al-Sadr must be taken through Iraqi channels and must be dealt with through Iraqi channels and with Iraqi authority,” Kindil said. “If there is a memorandum against al-Sadr, that does not justify any American military action in the area.”
Kindil says that allowing Iraqis to take a greater role in maintaining security would be critical to defusing the crisis. “From the very beginning it was clear American forces would not be able to maintain security,” he said. “They don’t know the people, the people don’t know them and they don’t know the country. There is no trust between those two sides as there could be between the Iraqi forces and the people.”
But the US government has been cool to the SCIRI proposal. It plans to maintain its force of 135,000 after the political handover due June 30 but also control the new Iraqi Army it trained after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Speaking on Fox News channel, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said control of Iraqi forces is necessary “because you have to have unity of command. You can’t have two military forces operating independently of one another. So to some extent, they would yield some of their sovereignty to our military commanders.”
That policy seems destined to result in more fighting and death in Iraq. In his sermon at the last Friday prayers in Najaf, Muqtada al-Sadr demanded an election before his Mehdi Army would consider surrendering arms. “If I agree with the law of the Americans and their followers, it will be as if I approve of them, and a man like me will never approve.”
Al-Sadr cited one of Shia Islam’s most important martyrs, Imam Hussein to explain his position.