Tanks close in on sacred shrine as US launches fresh assault on Najaf

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The Independent Online

US forces renewed their assault yesterday on Mehdi Army positions in and around Najaf's old city with an early morning bombing raid and an advance which brought tanks at some points to within 400 metres of the shrine of Imam Ali.

US forces renewed their assault yesterday on Mehdi Army positions in and around Najaf's old city with an early morning bombing raid and an advance which brought tanks at some points to within 400 metres of the shrine of Imam Ali.

The renewed fighting came amid fresh violence elsewhere in Iraq and growing fears about the welfare of three Western journalists who disappeared on the road between Baghdad and Najaf. There was a prison break-out in the southern city of Amarah, the corpse of a kidnapped Iraqi intelligence agent was found in Basra and fighting flared in and near Baghdad.

George Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper and Christian Chesnot of Radio France International failed to contact their editors on Thursday. Enzo Baldoni, an Italian journalist, was also reported missing on Friday. The body of his driver was found in Najaf at the weekend.

But hopes were raised yesterday when an American journalist, Micah Garen, was freed by an Iraqi group who had taken him hostage last week in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

In Najaf, residents clustered in doorways as tank shelling and sniper fire resounded for much of the morning through the grid of narrow and otherwise empty streets bordering the south-east boundary of the old city. American Abrams tanks took up positions close to intersections and earlier an AC-130 gunship raked insurgent strongholds with cannon and howitzer fire.

The interior ministry, whose credibility was undermined by its erroneous claim on Friday that police had seized control of the Imam Ali shrine, said yesterday that 40 Iraqis had been killed in fighting in the nearby town of Kufa the previous day. The figure was dismissed as "propaganda" by the Baghdad office of the cleric Muqtada Sadr, which claimed that one insurgent had been killed. There was no immediate evidence to suggest Iraqi deaths on such a scale during a visit to the town on Saturday, which followed a fierce battle in which insurgents claimed they had damaged two tanks and killed at least one American soldier.

The health ministry said nine Iraqis had been killed and 27 others injured in clashes in Najaf in the 24 hours since Saturday morning.

US helicopters,searching for mortar positions, circled over the police headquarters and the Governor's office as well as over the Wadi al-Salam cemetery, one of the main battlegrounds during the past 16 days.

The fresh phase of combat in Najaf was preceded by an appeal to Sadr from Hussein al-Sadr, a critic and distant relative of the militant cleric, to disarm the insurgents, pull them out of the Imam Ali shrine, and disband the Mehdi Army immediately. "We are in a race with time," he said. He urged the militants to end the standoff "to keep the sanctity of our holy sites, to ease the suffering of Najaf and to quiet the situation".

Police, meanwhile, said that Abdul Jawad, an intelligence officer kidnapped nearly a week ago by the Defence of the Holy Sites Brigade and threatened with death if US and Iraqi forces did not end the violence in Najaf, had been found dead in Basra.

Two people were killed and 14 others ­ including a deputy provincial governor ­ were injured when a car bomb exploded in Khalis, north of Baghdad.

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