Iraqi guardsmen 'to wipe out' Sadr forces

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The Independent Online

Psychological and military pressure on insurgents led by by the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr intensified yesterday with a US bombardment and a ministerial warning that the battle for Najaf was in its "last hours".

Psychological and military pressure on insurgents led by by the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr intensified yesterday with a US bombardment and a ministerial warning that the battle for Najaf was in its "last hours".

As fierce fighting continued in and around Najaf's old city, Iraqi National Guard troops, who the interim government has said will spearhead an assault on the Imam Ali mosque if it judges one necessary, appeared on the streets here for the first time.

Meanwhile, the Defence Minister, Hazem Shalaan, told a news conference at a US military base outside Najaf: "We are in the last hours. This evening, Iraqi forces will reach the doors of the shrine and control it and appeal to the Mehdi Army to throw down their weapons. If they do not, we will wipe them out."

In Baghdad, five ministerial bodyguards were killed when insurgents tried to assassinate Iraq's Environment Minister, Mishkat Moumin, and the Education Minister, Sami al-Mudhaffar, in separate attacks as their convoys travelled through two different parts of the city. More than a dozen people were injured in the attacks.

Mr Mudhaffar was unhurt after a roadside bomb hit his convoy in the city.

Ms Moumin, whose convoy was attacked by a suicide car bomber who had waited in a side street, said: "I have been working on sending aid to Najaf and before that distributing water in Sadr City. Serving the Iraqi people is not a crime that deserves this."

In Najaf, the Defence Minister's ultimatum was underpinned by another warning from the governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, who declared that Iraqi National Guardsmen were ready to "cleanse" the shrine of Shia Muslim militiamen "very soon" unless they leave of their own accord.

The governor, who has won plaudits from US officials for his robust stance towards the Sadr militants, added that if they did not vacate their positions: "The Iraqi National Guard are 300 metres outside the shrine. We are ready and waiting for the go ahead from Baghdad."

Plumes of black smoke rose from central Najaf and insurgents continued to respond with mortars and automatic gunfire after an onslaught from American warplanes, tanks, artillery and snipers as the US army and Marines reinforced their lines to the south of the mosque compound.

Although US forces appear to have gained significant ground from Army of Mehdi insurgents, such ultimatums have been issued before - the most recent by the interim government last Thursday. Nevertheless there was a mood, whether justified or not, among residents on the streets of Najaf that the climax of the battle could be imminent.

There were a series of explosions around Kufa, the largely Mehdi-controlled town six miles to the north-east of Najaf, as US airborne operations increased. Helicopter gunships circled over east Najaf as dusk fell and one could be seen firing a missile in the direction of the old city some two kilometres away.

Ali Smeissm, a senior Sadr spokesman, while bitterly criticising the interim government, said that the insurgents were ready to negotiate on last week's Iraqi National Conference demands for the Army of Mehdi to lay down its arms and join the political process.

Among shopkeepers in the city's al-Ishtarak neighbourhood, where business has been hit by violence and a de facto curfew, anti-Sadr feelings appeared to be running high last night.

Ali Abdul Zahar, 52, a former Iraqi air force pilot who was imprisoned for eight years in Abu Ghraib for anti-Saddam activities said: "Ninety per cent of Iraqis support democracy and 10 per cent dictatorship. Muqtada Sadr is among the 10 per cent."

Mr Zahar claimed that the militant Shia cleric was "finished".

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