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Uneasy truce evaporates in Najaf

Sadr's Mahdi Army and US forces clashed Thursday.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2004


The fragile truce between fighters loyal to the militant Shiite preacher Moqtada al-Sadr and US forces decisively broke down Thursday with fierce fighting throughout the day in the key Shiite shrine city of Najaf.

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Much of the country's Shiite south veered closer to a full-fledged uprising like the one Sadr's men engaged in last April when they briefly held at least six southern cities and engaged in battles that left about 300 insurgents and dozens of US forces dead.

The April fighting followed an aborted attempt to arrest Sadr, and Thursday the Mahdi Army prepared for battles in Sadr City, Basra, and Amara, saying they expected another US effort to arrest him to be imminent.

The new bloodshed comes after a week of rising tension in which a key Sadr aide was arrested and the US military, with the full backing of the interim government, seemed to be moving toward seeking to disarm or crush Sadr's organization. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi appears to back the latest US effort to go after Sadr, who has rebuffed efforts to convince him to disarm and back the interim regime.

"We have taken the necessary decisions to confront these challenges regardless of the price,'' interim Interior Minister Falah Naguib told a press conference Thursday afternoon. "The situation is under control and we are ready for any challenge."

While the US has the firepower to defeat Sadr's men on the field of battle, as of midafternoon Thursday, few Iraqi forces or US marines were seen on the streets of the city, where shops were shuttered and most residents feared the bloodshed would worsen. The cost of victory could prove intolerably high in Najaf, home to the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.

During Sadr's bloody uprising in April throughout the Shiite south, the US made the tactical decision to avoid an all-out assault on Najaf, particularly because damage to the shrine could drive millions of Iraqi Shiites to Sadr's side. That decision also left Sadr's men in charge of the city.

Now, US commanders and their Iraqi allies are mulling the costs of that decision, and Mahdi Army members say it appears the Americans are committed to driving them from the city. Security in the area is under the control of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which took command of the area on July 31.

"Let anti-Iraqi forces understand the clear message that precise, lethal firepower will be brought to bear upon them when they choose to stand and fight,'' the 11th MEU said in a statement on the latest hostilities. While Sadr's men see themselves as patriots fighting an occupation, the US and the interim government now often refer to insurgents as "anti-Iraqi forces."

There were conflicting accounts as to what started this latest round of fighting. The Marines said they were asked to intervene at about 3 a.m. Thursday, after a Mahdi Army assault with mortars, RPG's, and small arms on the main police station in the center of the city, something that Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi confirmed in an interview with Al Jazeera. He warned the Mahdi Army to leave the city immediately.