Angry Shias blame US for damage to shrine

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The Independent Online

Iraq's most sacred Shia shrine was damaged for the second time in fighting between American forces and the militia of the cleric Muqtada Sadr yesterday, provoking fury among Iraq's Shia majority.

Iraq's most sacred Shia shrine was damaged for the second time in fighting between American forces and the militia of the cleric Muqtada Sadr yesterday, provoking fury among Iraq's Shia majority.

Both sides blamed each other after one of the entrances to the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf was hit by what appeared to be rocket or mortar fire.

An angry crowd gathered at the shrine, blaming the Americans and demanding that they pull back their forces. But a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shia, accused Sadr's Mehdi Army of damaging the shrine so that they could blame the Americans.

Twelve people were reported injured in the attack, which came amid some of the worst fighting between US forces and the Army of Mehdi in Najaf and neighbouring Kufa. At least eight people were reported killed and 18 injured overnight in Najaf, among them civilians. At least two were killed and 14 were injured in Kufa, just across the Euphrates river.

It is hard to overstate the significance of the Imam Ali shrine to Shia Muslims worldwide, and particularly in Iraq. Television pictures showed one of those who gathered at the shrine yesterday weeping at the damage. At one time, Shia leaders suggested a pilgrimage to Najaf could substitute for the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are obliged to make.

The gold-domed shrine is the final resting place of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohamed. The Shia belief that he was robbed of his rightful place as caliph, the Prophet's successor, lies at the heart of the schism between Sunni and Shia.

Pilgrimages to the shrine were banned by Saddam Hussein, but since his overthrow millions have flocked to Najaf. In the past few weeks, as American forces have fought the Army of Mehdi, the pilgrims have stayed away.

The angry crowd that gathered at the shrine yesterday demanded that Ayatollah Sistani deliver an ultimatum to the Americans not to cross what they called "red lines". The ayatollah was silent, but his representative in Kuwait accused Sadr's forces of attacking the shrine themselves.

Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Mehri said the Army of Mehdi had tried to fire a mortar shell at the dome of the shrine so they could blame the Americans, but missed and hit the gateway instead. The accusation was echoed by the Americans, who insisted they were not reponsible.

Sadr was "trying to agitate world opinion against the coalition", Ayatollah Mehri said. "We want to tell the world, and America, that Muqtada Sadr is not one of us, and this is a conspiracy against Shias so that we don't get any rights."

By fighting Sadr's militia inside the holy city, the Americans are risking a fearsome backlash from Iraq's Shia. Sadr launched a Shia uprising across southern Iraq in April, after the US occupation leadership moved against him, closing one of his newspapers and arresting one of his aides. Sadr holed up with some of his militia in Najaf, and at first the Americans hesitated to attack him there, but in the past few weeks they have gone on the offensive.

The fighting in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala has caused Shia fury at both sites. The Imam Ali shrine was damaged during Saddam's suppression of the Shia uprising in 1991, and the Americans now risk being compared to Saddam's regime by the Shia, many of whom at first welcomed them as liberators from Saddam.

The Americans appear to be banking on the fact that Sadr does not have widespread support. Ayatollah Sistani, who does, has told Sadr and his forces they should withdraw from the holy cities and stop fighting the Americans.

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