Iraqi leader urges armed groups to leave holy cities

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric urged both U.S. soldiers and a radical cleric's militia Tuesday to withdraw from two Shiite holy cities where fighting has raged near some of Shia Islam's holiest shrines.

A statement released in Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani's name urged Iraqis not to travel to Najaf to join protests called by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Instead, he said, Shiites should join rallies elsewhere to demand that Najaf and Karbala "be rid of all armed manifestations."

However, the statement, which al-Sistani's aides distributed to reporters after nighttime skirmishes in Najaf, did not include the ayatollah's personal seal nor was it posted on his Web site, as is customary with religious decrees, or fatwas, which are binding on his followers.

An aide to al-Sistani, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the ayatollah wants both the Americans and al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army out of the holy cities in southern Iraq but has avoided an explicit call because he knows neither side is prepared to accept it.

Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, deputy commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, said there were indications that al-Sadr was trying to bring in fighters to reinforce his militia in Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad.

"We are doing our best to intercept those people," Hertling said at Camp Lima, a military base on the outskirts of the city.

U.S. officials have insisted that al-Sadr disband his militia and answer charges in the murder of a rival cleric in April 2003. Al-Sadr has insisted that the Americans agree to defer charges until a new Iraqi government is elected next January.

The U.S.-led coalition is struggling to contain an insurgency in Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad, as well as an uprising in a Shiite district of Baghdad and the Shiite heartland to the south led by al-Sadr.

Coalition officials estimate that about 265 Iraqi fighters have been killed since the uprising began in early April. According to an Associated Press tally, 254 Iraqis have been killed since April 5.

Before dawn Tuesday, U.S. troops killed nine fighters loyal to al-Sadr in Karbala, said Mutaz al-Hasani, a witness who saw their bodies. Ten Iraqi fighters were wounded in the clashes near the city's Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines.

At least five Iraqi insurgents were killed during clashes in Karbala later in the day, according to Capt. Noel Gorospe, a U.S. military spokesman there.

In Lebanon, the leader of the Hezbollah guerrilla group accused U.S. soldiers on Tuesday of desecrating holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala, and called on Muslims to fight to the death to defend the sanctities.

"By attacking holy sites, they are attacking all Muslims and all Shiites worldwide," Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told thousands of supporters in a Beirut southern suburb.

The U.S. military says militiamen have used Muslim holy places in the two Iraqi cities as firing positions and storerooms for weapons. Hertling said U.S. forces were also doing "their best" to protect holy sites during the fighting.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, said coalition forces had agreed to reduce their presence in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, an al-Sadr stronghold, in exchange for a cessation of attacks on coalition troops. The deal was made Sunday in a meeting with local leaders, and the district has calmed though there were two mortar attacks, he said.

In Baghdad, Interior Minister Samir Shaker Mahmoud al-Sumeidi said an Iraqi team would investigate the killing of Saleem with FBI assistance.

"The Interior Ministry will rethink the security needs of high-profile personalities and will consult with the coalition forces about bridging the gaps that we know exist," al-Sumeidi said.

Kimmitt had said the bombing had the "classic hallmarks" of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born militant with links to al-Qaida. But on Tuesday, he said another group may be to blame "because of methodology in some of the techniques that were used." He did not elaborate.

A previously unknown group, the Arab Resistance Movement, claimed responsibility in a Web site posting.

Al-Zarqawi is believed responsible for many of the vehicle bombs in Iraq in recent months and for the beheading last week of U.S. civilian Nicholas Berg.

Saleem was waiting in a Governing Council convoy at a U.S. checkpoint, preparing to enter the Green Zone, when the bomb detonated. It apparently had been rigged with artillery shells and hidden inside a red Volkswagen. At least six other Iraqis were killed.

Saleem, a Shiite Muslim in his 60s, held the rotating presidency of the Governing Council for May. He was the second council member slain since their appointment last July; Aquila al-Hashimi was mortally wounded by gunmen in September.

Associated Press correspondents Sameer N. Yacoub in Najaf and Fisnik Abrashi in Karbala contributed to this report.

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