BAGHDAD Ñ The U.S. military offensive against the Iranian-backed
Mahdi Army has been hampered by feuding within the Iraqi government
Iraqi government sources said the U.S.-led military coalition has been
inundated with contradictory messages from a range of leading Iraqi
politicians. The sources said that much of the Iraqi Cabinet appears to
oppose the U.S. attack on the Mahdi Army in Najaf as military forces come
within 200 meters of the insurgency stronghold.
"We are deeply concerned about the viciousness of the U.S. military's
assault on Najaf," said Jawad Maliki, a senior official in the Shi'ite Dawa
Party led by Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim Jaffari. "What is happening in
Najaf could open the door to a serious crisis that would undermine the whole
political process in the country."
On Friday, Iraqi sources said Mahdi Army commander Moqtada Sadr was
injured or killed in the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, Middle East Newsline reported. The sources said Sadr was
injured in a U.S. artillery strike, an assertion confirmed by the Mahdi
Army. Sadr, the sources said, was negotiating with the Iraqi government for
his safe passage out of Najaf.
Earlier, U.S. 11th Marine Expeditionary Force, backed by main battle
tanks and AH-64 Apache helicopters, launched a strike on a Najaf cemetery
described as the last stronghold of the Mahdi Army. About 500 people have
been killed in the week-long battle with Shi'ite insurgents loyal to Sadr.
"Today's operations are designed to restrict freedom of movement of Sadr
forces in Kufa and Najaf and to further isolate them in these mosques, which
they use as a base of operations," U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, the
multinational force's deputy operations director, said on Thursday. "Militia
use of these shrines
as protective shields could lead to damage of these sacred sites."
Iraqi sources said the coalition has been consulting with Prime Minister
Iyad Alawi, who has approved the offensive in Najaf. But they said Alawi has
been opposed by a range of politicians led by President Ghazi Al Yawar.
"The biggest fear is that of a prolonged operation that will end up
destroying Najaf and the holy sites," a government source said.
U.S. commanders said the operations in Kufa and Najaf have spared
Shi'ite shrines. They said coalition troops have not attacked either the
Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf nor the Kufa Mosque, despite their use by the Mahdi
A statement by the coalition said police headquarters in Najaf came
under mortar fire from Mahdi Army units stationed in the Imam Ali Mosque.
The statement said Sadr's militia fired 25 mortar rounds from within the
walls of the mosque.
Alawi has also authorized the deployment of thousands of police, army
and security forces for Kufa and Najaf operations. The commanders said some
of the Iraqi forces have been performing well and repelled three Mahdi Army
attacks in the center of Najaf.
"The Iraqi police and the Iraqi armed forces will be the forces to
liberate these locations that have been occupied by these gangs," Iraqi
State Minister Kasim Daoud said.