Najaf talks fail and so Sadr's trial of strength with Allawi resumes

Armed rebels occupy a holy site. US troops surround them. Talks have broken down. Donald Macintyre reports from Iraq on a deadly siege
Click to follow
The Independent Online

US and Iraqi forces were poised yesterday to resume fighting rebel Shia militia in the holy city of Najaf, after peace talks aimed at ending an uprising that has left hundreds dead collapsed.

Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, told a news conference in Najaf that the embattled US-backed interim government had given up trying to reach a deal with the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army in the southern city. He said: "The Iraqi interim government is resuming military clearing operations to ... establish law and order in this holy city."

An uneasy truce has held in Najaf since Friday, when US troops and tanks loosened their noose around the Imam Ali Mosque and an ancient cemetery where Mr Sadr and his followers have holed up. Najaf's 10-day conflict has ignited fighting in seven other cities and triggered mass street protests that threaten to undermine the authority of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi barely seven weeks after he took power.

Thousands of protesters from other parts of southern Iraq have streamed to Najaf and joined Mr Sadr in the mosque, the holiest Shia Islamic site in Iraq. In fresh fighting elsewhere, US forces said they killed about 50 insurgents near the northern Iraqi town of Samarra, a mainly Sunni Muslim area where US troops have launched repeated raids to flush out guerrillas.

War planes dropped 500lb bombs, while insurgents responded with rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades, a US military statement said, adding that there were no US casualties. Casting doubt on the toll, Iraqi police in Samarra said at least five people were killed and 50 wounded in fighting in the area, 100km (62 miles) south of Baghdad.

Fighting also raged between US troops and Sadr followers in the southern Shia town of Hilla overnight. Forty fighters and three police were killed, Iraq's interior ministry said, although the health ministry said 10 people were killed.

The focus, however, remains Najaf, and arriving here on Friday, nobody could fail to note a different mood among those prepared to venture out of their homes - much more nervous and a great deal less hopeful than in the spring of last year.

And last week electricity - indispensable in the brutal 120 degree (49C) August heat - and water were even scarcer than usual because of the outbreak of violence between the radical Shia cleric's militants embedded in and around the Imam Ali compound and more than 4,000 US Marines, soldiers, Iraqi national guards and police encircling them. And the phone lines were cut.

So what created this bloody conflict - for which the US military gave an uncorroborated and hotly contested casualty estimate of at least 360 dead insurgents since the fighting started 11 days ago - but which has certainly caused several hundred other deaths, many of them civilian, as it spread to other cities in Iraq?

And how did the chances of maintaining the fragile ceasefire called 24 hours earlier and making peace, finally collapse yesterday afternoon with all the incalculable consequences that could flow from the resumption of the fighting?

In the short term at least, its roots appear to lie in an incident on 2 August. Aides to Mr Sadr claimed that US troops were surrounding his house apparently with the intent of taking him dead or alive. Besides his recently acquired fame as the country's most prominent insurgent leader Mr Sadr is wanted on charges - which he denies - of involvement in last year's murder of a rival cleric favoured by coalition leaders as a moderate, Abdul Majid al-Khoei. US forces are adamant they were merely retaliating after a routine US patrol came under fire from insurgents in a location close to Mr Sadr's home.

But either way the firefight provided a pretext for Thursday morning's attack on the police station in Revolution of 1920 square. The Iraqi police and national guard, better trained than during the last clashes with Mr Sadr's insurgents back in April, repelled the first two attacks but the Governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, called in the US Marines, whose 11th Expeditionary Unit had recently taken over responsibility for the area, when the third looked overwhelming.

One diplomat in Baghdad with good coalition contacts maintained last week that Mr Sadr was looking to reignite the struggle because he was under pressure from his own more militant elements to resume the Shia insurgency which had been in abeyance since the uneasy truce last April.

A second possible reason is that he was frustrated that he was not exercising more influence - some of it helped financially and otherwise by his followers' involvement in the running of mosques in Najaf, the Baghdad Shia stronghold of Sadr city, and elsewhere - on the Iraqi political scene. A third reason could be because of the growing Iranian involvement about which Iraqi interim ministers have been complaining with increasing ferocity in recent weeks. Or it could be a combination of all three factors.

But whatever the causes, it rapidly began to look as though the interim Iraqi government had found its pretext to finish what it saw as the unfinished business left by the uneasy truce in June. This ended more than two months of battles with Sadr insurgents but left Sadr's Mehdi Army intact. In a bellicose press conference on the day of the police station attack, the Iraqi interior minister spoke of "glorious victories" by Iraqi forces in Najaf and elsewhere, and added pregnantly: "This should have come after the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime. It has been delayed. And now it has started."

Initially - and there have been several lurches of rhetoric by both the Iraqi government and US military commanders this week -- Mr Allawi appeared more cautious on Saturday as he announced an amnesty for insurgents perpetrating lesser crimes; but by Sunday, as he arrived in a US helicopter for a heavily guarded visit to Najaf, Mr Allawi was announcing that there would "no negotiations or truce" with Mr Sadr's insurgents. It was after Mr Allawi's meeting with Mr al-Zurufi, that the the stocky, tough-sounding Najaf governor appears to have given US forces permission to enter the section of the huge and hallowed Wadi al-Salam cemetery which lies within the exclusion zone agreed in June, to attempt to clear it of insurgents and their weapons. And that US marine officers started to talk increasingly of a final assault on the insurgent redoubt in and around the Imam Ali shrine.

If the conflict had not started as the first critical test for the credibility of the Allawi government since it took over responsibility for directing the tasks of the coalition forces, it was rapidly turning into one.

Several factors may have led to what became a fairly rapid reversal of the previous disavowal of negotiations. On the coalition side the dangers to US troops were far from negligible. There was an unconfirmed report that a Special Forces Officer had been killed in the fierce fighting when US forces stormed Mr Sadr's house on Thursday and destroyed a school building housing at least 20 gunmen. But it was also becoming increasingly obvious that a full-scale ground attack, let alone one with air support, might well damage the shrine of Imam Ali and the surrounding compound. It was bad enough to make a martyr of Mr al-Sadr, who is disliked by many Shias and was a leader of relative insignificance until Paul Bremer, the former leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority, made the unforced error of banning his newspaper. Serious damage to the most revered site in Iraq for Shia Islam would provoke a potentially catastrophic reaction at home and abroad.

On Mr Sadr's side there also may have been growing concern that the US alternative of - to use US Secretary of State Colin Powell's word - "squeezing" the Mehdi Army, in the holy sites, might eventually work. In the shrine on Friday night, the exquisitely patterned mosaic of its walls lit by looping chains of brilliant green and white lights, there was no doubting the intense loyalty he engenders among his closest supporters as hundreds of them chanted: "No to Allawi" and "We have no leader but Muqtada al-Sadr". Some of his critics in Najaf say that he has also recruited former Baathists to his ranks. But he could not be sure that a prolonged siege, combined with more casualties, might not end the career he seeks as a political leader - espousing a hard-line code of private behaviour and a fundamentalist Islamic constitution among other things - as well a guerrilla one.

Yet despite all these factors, the talks failed yesterday: "I am very said to announce the failure of all the government's efforts to solve the crisis in Najaf," Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, Allawi's national security adviser, announced yesterday. Before the talks broke down, Governor al-Zurufi had suggested that Mr Sadr's refusal to disband the Mehdi Army had been a sticking point. Whether that meant that the cleric had abandoned some of his other demands, such as the release of prisoners taken in the fighting and the withdrawal of Iraqi police from Najaf, was not immediately clear. Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, one of Mr Sadr's many spokesmen, came to the Bar Najaf hotel and claimed that Mr Rubaie had been making progress in the talks but had been recalled to Baghdad by an impatient Mr Allawi. That the fighting will resume seems certain - US jets were again in the air yesterday afternoon, sporadic explosions could be heard across the city and the streets were deserted - but its chances of solving the underlying crisis are much less so.

'The closer we get, the scarcer they become. You gotta give 'em credit'

During the battle for Najaf, Associated Press's Todd Pitman went out on patrol with 'C' (Charlie) Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment in the Najaf cemetery, where the Mehdi militia had holed up.

The platoon leader's call came crackling over the radios: "We're taking RPG fire, 800 metres! Small arms fire, 300 metres!"

With night falling, the soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division were being attacked by militants creeping tombstone by tombstone toward them in Najaf's sprawling cemetery.

"You have to give them credit," Sergeant Mike Dewilde said after a brief firefight with insurgents. "They do an amazing amount with what little they have."

The men of the 1st Battalion had been patrolling a dusty road that cuts into the graveyard's heart for eight hours to prevent militants loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from moving north.

They had discovered and blown up four bombs laid on rock-strewn paths. They had been attacked by mortars that came close but had hurt no one.

When pockets of al-Sadr fighters got too close, they called in Apache helicopter gunships and pressed forward with only the faintest resistance, then pulled back.

Near dusk, however, the crackle of gunfire and explosions rang out again.

Several tanks and half a dozen Jeeps sped up to a deserted intersection on the cemetery's north-eastern edge.

Sgt Dewilde reported eight men with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and "multiple snipers" had been spotted in the graveyard and buildings rising behind it near the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine.

American commanders are under strict orders to avoid damaging the shrine for fear of enraging Iraq's Shia majority and Shias worldwide.

For that reason, they maintain positions in the cemetery approximately 800 metres away.

Sgt Lyle Pete, 24, said he had seen three men repeatedly firing from a building near the shrine. "They jump out and fire and jump back inside," he said.

With light gunfire echoing through the graveyard, a mortar landed behind the men, then an RPG round exploded to their front. Smoke rose from the blasts.

A small unit of about 15 men scrambled forward looking for firing positions. Some lay in the middle of a small path leading south.

A tank positioned in the road starting firing rounds from its cannon, and gunners perched on four machine-gun mounted Jeeps began shooting.

A three-man team led by Sgt Dewilde ran up the steps of a mausoleum whose square, walled-in concrete roof provided ideal cover. They laid rifles across the upper edge of the wall and began shooting.

Tense and sweating, two soldiers started to sing as they looked for targets.

"One little, two little, three little Indians!"

Sgt Dewilde cut them off. "Shut up!"

The two laid a machine-gun along the wall and began firing.

After a few minutes, orders came to move ahead.

The infantrymen advanced slowly, ducking behind tombs and poking flashlights down crypts.

"The problem is these guys can hide behind anything out here," said Pte Joel Klootwyk, poking a gun over a cemetery wall.

After a 10-minute walk, the three-man group burst into a white-walled mausoleum. There was no sign of their attackers.

"The closer we get, the scarcer they become," said Sgt Dewilde. "When we move forward, they move back. We've found cigarettes still burning, warm tea still in the cups. You gotta give 'em credit. They got guts."

Najaf Timeline

April 2004

US administrator Paul Bremer closes newspaper run by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, blaming it for instigating violence. An uprising ends with a truce that establishes exclusion zone in the city.

Thursday 5 August

Members of Jaish al-Mehdi militia attack police station just before dawn but retreat to exclusion zone when US Marines arrive.

One US helicopter shot down. The US blocks entry to the Imam Ali mosque, dedicated to Mohamed's cousin and one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam.

Friday 6 August

Fierce fighting at Wadi Al Salam cemetery inside the exclusion zone. US claims to have killed 300 fighters, which would be the largest militant death toll since war "ended". Two US soldiers also die.

Saturday 7 August

Iraqi government deadline for militants to leave Najaf expires. Sporadic gunfire throughout city. Streets deserted.

Sunday 8 August

Prime Minister Allawi makes brief tour of city with armed US guards. Militia seen digging new defences and laying mines.

Monday 9 August

Polish troops responsible for Najaf formally hand over control to US and Iraqi troops. Al-Sadr calls press conference inside the Imam Ali shrine, vowing: "I will stay here until my last drop of blood."

Tuesday 10 August

Bombs fall as US vehicles broadcast Arabic message: "To residents of Najaf: coalition forces are purging the city of the Mehdi Army."

Wednesday 11 August

Militia entrenched in both the shrine and cemetery. US commander warns there will be "no sanctuary for thugs and criminals".

Thursday 12 August

Supported by air power, Iraqi and American troops encircle the shrine. They storm the home of al-Sadr, but he is believed to be one mile away, sheltering with his followers inside the Imam Ali shrine.

Friday 13 August

Streets calm after night of fighting. From inside the mosque, al-Sadr promises to "remain until victory or martyrdom". Meanwhile his aides begin negotiations. Truce and suspension of military operations. Al-Sadr claims credit for release of kidnapped British journalist.

Saturday 14 August

Stand off. US tanks and Iraqi guns remain silent. Iraqi Interior Minister claims al-Sadr "will not be touched" if he leaves Najaf. Cleric said to have been wounded in chest, arm and leg - but releases statement demanding US withdrawal from Iraq, release of prisoners and amnesty for fighters before they will quit. Talks collapse late afternoon, militants brace themselves for attack. Iraqi troops wait for order to storm mosque.