US risks fury of Shia as Imam Ali's shrine is hit

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In a potentially explosive move, US forces pushed towards one of Shia Islam's holiest shrines yesterday as they broadened their offensive against the militia led by the radical Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr.

In a potentially explosive move, US forces pushed towards one of Shia Islam's holiest shrines yesterday as they broadened their offensive against the militia led by the radical Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr.

The Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf was damaged when its golden dome was hit by gunfire, which could provoke fury among Iraq's Shia majority.

American tanks moved into the vast Najaf cemetery, where all Iraqi Shia aspire to be buried, a place of great spiritual significance. Some of the most intense fighting took place among the ornamental tombs and narrow alleys of the cemetery - and the sight of American tanks advancing there on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, could further inflame passions.

Shia religious leaders expressed concern for the safety of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual head of Iraq's Shia, who was inside his compound, close to the fighting. Ayatollah Sistani is already believed to have survived an assassination attempt in February, and any harm to him could open up a potentially disastrous power struggle among the Shia.

Four large holes were visible in the golden dome of the Imam Ali Shrine yesterday, each about 8 inches by 12 inches across, which appeared to have been caused by machine-gun fire. The Americans and Mr Sadr's Mehdi Army immediately blamed each other for the damage.

The shrine is the final resting place of the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, Imam Ali. It is the Shias' belief that Ali was cheated of his rightful place as caliph, the Prophet's successor, that is at the heart of the schism between Sunni and Shia.

Whoever fired the bullets that hit the shrine, US forces are risking a fearsome backlash from Iraq's Shia with their offensive. The shrine was damaged during Saddam Hussein's brutal suppression of the Shia revolt in 1991. Even as they are being compared to Saddam by ordinary Iraqis for the abuses in Abu Ghraib prison, US forces risked being compared to the former dictator on another front.

The Americans appear to be banking on the fact that Sadr and his militia are not popular in Najaf, or among Iraq's Shia in general; Shia leaders recently called on the Mehdi Army to pull out of the city.

But by choosing to fight Mr Sadr's militiamen head-on in the holy city, the Americans risk giving his uprising, which until now has enjoyed only limited support, far greater significance.

Some of the worst fighting was inside the vast cemetery, known as the "Valley of Peace". The cemetery, believed to be the biggest in the world, is the size of a small town, and its narrow alleys provide perfect cover for guerrilla tactics.

Sadr has been holed up in Najaf since he first called for a Shia uprising against the occupation in April, apparently gambling that the US would not dare to attack him. Until recently US forces appeared to be sticking to a strategy of surrounding Sadr's forces, and relying on Iraqi Shia pressure to force him out.

But in the past week the Americans have gone on the offensive against the Mehdi Army, and Sadr has responded by calling on his supporters to launch all-out attacks against the occupation forces across Iraq, prompting unrest as far away as Basra.

Yesterday was the most serious assault yet by the Americans against his positions. They claimed that they were only responding to Mehdi Army fire from the cemetery - but their forces have come under similar fire daily without reacting.

It is not clear why the Americans have chosen to step up their offensive against Sadr. There has been a lot of talk recently about American "patience wearing thin" with the cleric, but his uprising has stalled since it began in April.

Whereas then the Mehdi Army was able to drive the occupation forces out of some Shia towns, such as Kufa, and take control, American-led forces have now retaken all of them and Sadr has failed to ignite a general Shia uprising across Iraq.

It was the American occupation chief, Paul Bremer, who set off Sadr's uprising when he shut down a newspaper run by the cleric that had a tiny circulation. That transformed Sadr from being a firebrand orator ignored by most Iraqis into a man at the head of his own uprising.

By taking on his forces on ground of such mythic significance as Najaf, the Americans are now risking transforming an uprising that has little support into something much bigger.

¿ Corporal Charles Graner will be the fourth US soldier to be court-martialled over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners when he faces seven charges including maltreatment, adultery and cruelty. In total seven military police reservists have been charged.