Americans poised to enter holiest Shia site in hunt for Sadr

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The Independent Online

The scene was set for a bloody showdown last night between American forces and the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr as 2,500 US soldiers massed on the outskirts of the city of Najaf.

The scene was set for a bloody showdown last night between American forces and the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr as 2,500 US soldiers massed on the outskirts of the city of Najaf.

As the radical cleric vowed to die rather than surrender to coalition forces, Iraqi politicians and ayatollahs attempted to negotiate a solution to avert a US assault on Najaf, the holiest Shia city in the world.

"The target is not Najaf," said Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, deputy head of US military operations in Iraq. "The target is Muqtada Sadr and his militia. We will hunt him down and destroy him. We would prefer it not in Najaf or Karbala. We have very great respect for the shrines, for the Shia."

Sadr, who was confident of the protection of the Imam Ali Shrine - the city's holiest site - only metres from his office, told Lebanon's Al Manar television station: "I fear only God. I am ready to sacrifice my blood for this country. But I call on the Iraqi people not to let my killing put an end to their rejection of the [US] occupation." The strategy of a possible attack on the city was likely to enrage Iraqis and Shias around the world, resulting in a transformation from a relatively confined revolt by a single militia to an outright Shia rebellion. The US forces in Najaf dwarf the marine force besieging Fallujah. There were thought to be 1,500 active supporters of the 30-year-old cleric within Najaf.

"We've got to get this right. If we get this wrong, we will piss off the whole Muslim world between Morocco and Indonesia," said Col Dana J H Pittard, commander of US forces in the city.

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