Battles fought with Sadr's militia close to holiest Shia shrines

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The Independent Online

There was fighting around the holiest Shia shrines in Iraq yesterday, as the assassinated head of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council was buried in Baghdad.

Shia militiamen loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fought street battles with American tanks near the Imam Hussein Shrine in Karbala. Further south the offices of the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shia majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, were hit by gunfire near the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf.

Reports from Karbala spoke of militiamen from Sadr's Mehdi Army fighting American tanks on foot, firing rocket-propelled grenades then running for the cover of the narrow alleys. The ornate entrance to the Imam Hussein shrine, the resting place of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and one of Shia Islam's two most sacred shrines, has reportedly been damaged in the gunfire.

That will cause Shia fury, as will the news that the offices of Ayatollah Sistani were hit by gunfire overnight. It was not clear which side the gunfire came from, and no casualties were reported. Iraq's Shia are fiercely loyal to Ayatollah Sistani, and any harm to him could have devastating consequences for the occupation.

Ayatollah Sistani yesterday issued a demand for both the Americans and Sadr's forces to withdraw from the holy cities, and called on Iraqi Shia to hold peaceful demonstrations against the incursions and the damage to the holy shrines. The Imam Ali shrine in Najaf has already been damaged, with four large bullet-holes in its golden dome.

Sadr launched a Shia uprising against the US occupation in April. In recent weeks, the US has taken the battle to him by attacking his forces in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, but US forces appear to be getting as badly bogged down as they did in their heavy-handed onslaught on Falluja last month.

This time, the stakes are higher: in Fallujah, US forces were taking on the Sunni minority which was already at the heart of an insurgency. In Najaf and Karbala, US forces are attacking in two cities of immense spiritual significance to the Shia majority -- most of whom are not yet in open rebellion against the occupation.

The US appears to be banking on the fact that Sadr lacks popular appeal, and that his uprising has failed to ignite all of Iraq's Shia. But with every day that the fighting in the holy cities continues, and US forces are unable to overwhelm Sadr's poorly equipped Mehdi Army, they risk giving Sadr the popular appeal he so badly needs.

Stories of Mehdi Army militiamen fighting off tanks advancing around the holy shrines may transform the Mehdi Army's image. Even US soldiers have said in interviews they admire the militiamen's courage in fighting.

In Baghdad yesterday, they buried Izzedin Salim, the head of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council who was killed on Monday in a car bombing at the entrance to the main US headquarters in Iraq.

Speaking at a memorial service for Mr Salim, the American occupation governor in Iraq, Paul Bremer, insisted the planned handover of sovereignty to a new appointed Iraqi government would go ahead on 30 June, despite the killing.

A claim of responsibility for the assassination was issued by a previously unheard of group, the Arab Resistance Movement, which identified the two suicide bombers who detonated explosives as Mr Salim's car was waiting to enter a checkpoint. The US has previously claimed suicide bombings are the work of foreign militants, but the two names the group gave, Ali Khaled al-Jabouri and Mohammed Hassan al-Samaraei, are both distinctly Iraqi. Al-Samaraei means from the city of Samarra, in Iraq, and al-Jabouri is a well-known Iraqi tribe.

Also yesterday, three Iraqis working for the Reuters news agency came forward to claim they had been abused by US forces in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison when they were held there in January. Reuters said the three men had told the company of the abuses after they were released, but had decided to come forward publicly after the release of photographs showing Iraqi prisoners being mistreated in Abu Ghraib.

In a report issued before the Abu Ghraib scandal emerged, the US claimed an investigation found no evidence the three Reuters employees had been tortured or humiliated. Reuters has demanded a review of those findings.

The three Iraqis -- Salem Ureibi, a cameraman, Ahmad Mohammed, a television journalist and Sattar Jabar, a driver - claim they were forced to make "demeaning gestures" while US soldiers took photographs of them and laughed. The two claimed they were forced to stick their fingers in their anuses and then lick them, and two put shoes in their mouths -- which is very humiliating in Arab society.

Mr Ureibi claims American soldiers told him they wanted to have sex with him, and says he feared he would be raped.