Despite Muqtada Al-Sadrâ€™s attempt to accept demands that his Mehdi Army depart from the Imam Ali Shrine and engage peacefully in the Iraqi political process, including an apparent move to hand the shrine over to top Shiâ€™ite clerics, the assault on Mehdi forces intensified overnight and into Friday morning.
US forces bombarded Mehdi militia positions in Najafâ€™s old city and have reportedly used armored vehicles to surround the Shrine, which the rebel cleric is thought to be using as a headquarters. The overnight aerial assault included fire from dreaded C-130 “Spectre” gunships, airplanes that revolve around their target, employing a plethora of munitions to saturate and overwhelm specific areas with thousands of rounds per minute.
Today the Iraqi Minister of Health reported that at least 75 Iraqis on both sides died during the past dayâ€™s combat, which wounded no less than 70 more, reports CNN.
Journalists who entered the compound Thursday report that the walls of the Shrine — considered one of the holiest sites in Shiâ€™ite Islam — have sustained damage in the battle despite promises from US forces that they would not harm the Mosque. The fighting has also damaged homes around the holy site.
US-appointed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told reporters that Al-Sadr has been issued a final warning in the form of yet another ultimatum: disarm or be forcibly disarmed. Al-Sadr has reportedly insisted that he be allowed to deal with the eight-member delegation from the Iraq National Conference rather than with the government of Allawi, which Al-Sadr considers illegitimate and “treasonous.”
Though Wednesday it appeared that Al-Sadr had accepted a peace proposal set forth by a small delegation from the Conference, which included an offer to transform the Mehdi militias into a political movement, Al-Sadr has reportedly refused to completely disarm all of his forces and has called on US troops to leave Najaf.
According to Aljazeera TV, Al-Sadrâ€™s Najaf spokesperson, Ahmed Al-Shaibani, insists that Al-Sadr was surprised by Allawiâ€™s still-threatening stance, since Al-Sadr had sent a letter to Baghdad offering to meet most of Allawiâ€™s demands, including a departure from Najaf if the US Army and Marines observe a ceasefire. In the letter and other statements Al-Sadr has reportedly said his forces are willing to turn the Imam Ali mosque, where they have sought refuge for the past two weeks, over to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani and his council.
Meanwhile, members of the Iraqi commando force who expect to be involved in an eventual raid on Al-Sadrâ€™s headquarters express grave misgivings about attacking fellow Iraqis in a holy place. “I have never been in Imam Ali’s shrine,” a 23 year-old Shiâ€™ite rifleman named Tofik Kasim told the Washington Post. This would be the first time. And I go in fighting?”
The Associated Press reports that Mehdi fighters attacked a Najaf police station on Thursday, killing seven and wounding another 35. Fighting also continued in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum that more than a million Shiâ€™ite Muslims call home.
Still farther south, near Nasariyah, Shiâ€™ite militants have set more oil wells ablaze. Reports to the contrary notwithstanding, there does not appear to be any evidence that those attacks were carried out by Mehdi Army personnel or at the order of Muqtada Al-Sadr. Sheikh Aws al-Khafagi, quoted by Chinaâ€™s Xinhua news service, referred to the saboteurs as “residents” who set fires near their homes in protest of Allawiâ€™s hardline stance against Al-Sadr and of US military actions in Najaf.
Witnesses told the Associated Press that militants loyal to Al-Sadr attacked the Basra headquarters of the Iraqi South Oil Company. Nevertheless, a “British military official” was quoted by the AP as reporting that 1.7 million barrels of oil — or nearly the normal capacity of a week ago — were pumped out of the Southern oil fields. The same official also told the AP that “there have been no recent attacks” on those oil fields.