BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. tanks rolled into the heartland of Shiite Islam on Friday as troops fought among ancient graves in a stepped-up campaign against militiamen loyal to an anti-American cleric in the southern holy city of Najaf.
As attack helicopters flew overhead, American forces blasted targets in the vast Valley of Peace cemetery, killing at least four fighters, a militia spokesman said. Smoke rose among weathered tombstones and guerrillas ducked for cover in footage broadcast live all day by Arabic-language satellite television.
The images that most outraged Iraqis were of bullet holes gouging the landmark golden dome of the Shrine of Imam Ali, a place of pilgrimage for Shiites, the nation's religious majority.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for U.S. military operations in Iraq, said American troops were positioned so that any gunfire that hit the mosque probably came from their foes. Shiites who'd seen TV coverage of the clash weren't appeased.
"We are just waiting for the orders to fight," said Enam Ghada, a 40-year-old Shiite schoolteacher in Baghdad. "If our dome is damaged by the Americans and our men are sitting idle, maybe we women should handle it."
Battles on sacred soil are likely to mean that American forces will face even more opposition before returning authority to Iraqis on June 30. The violence Friday spelled an apparent end to peace negotiations between the coalition and Muqtada al-Sadr's camp, while even moderate Shiites implored mainstream clerics to declare jihad, or holy war.
Many Iraqis said the U.S.-led coalition picked the wrong time to move in on al-Sadr, a young renegade cleric whose Mahdi Army militia has carried on a monthlong uprising with attacks on American soldiers in Najaf, Karbala and other southern cities. If the recent scandal over U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners was the powder keg, Iraqis said, the damage to the shrine—shown Friday to millions in the Muslim world—was the match.
"The situation in Najaf shows the Americans do not respect our religious values or symbols, and that increases the anger and leads those who have moderate stances to join the militants," said Nabil Mohammed Salim, a Sunni Muslim political science professor at Baghdad University. "What happened today at the Imam Ali shrine is an example of the disrespect that provokes people's emotions and leads a lot of them with unsettled views right to the resistance."
Kimmitt accused the Mahdi Army of attempting to use the holy sites "much like human shields." He declared: "We have not attacked the shrine of Imam Ali. We continue to respect the red lines that have been established by the religious clerics."
News of the damage was so disturbing to Shiite Iraqis that some refused to believe it at first, and accused pan-Arab satellite stations of making up the story. By late afternoon, however, video footage streamed across television sets that clearly showed at least two small holes in the dome.
Sheik Ahmed Sheybani, a spokesman for al-Sadr in Najaf, confirmed in a telephone interview that the shrine was caught in crossfire early Friday. He said American forces "targeted" the mosque, words sure to inflame already restive Shiites whether or not they are true. The shrine contains the tomb of Ali, the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law and Shiites' most revered saint.
The news sparked a demonstration in Kadhemiya, a heavily Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad that's home to another gold-domed shrine. Hundreds of men rallied after Friday prayers, waving posters of al-Sadr and chanting, "Muqtada is the bridge to paradise!" A U.S. helicopter flew over the crowd and American soldiers stood guard on streets leading to the shrine.
Al-Sadr's uprising began in early April just after U.S. officials charged him in connection with the murder last year of a American-backed cleric in Najaf. While many in the holy city have complained that al-Sadr's militia is intimidating locals and driving off the lucrative pilgrim trade, some polls suggest the cleric's popularity is increasing across ethnic and sectarian lines.
A massive anti-al-Sadr protest planned for Friday was called off to make way for "efforts toward an agreement on the cessation of all military activities" in Najaf, according to a statement issued by a cleric with ties to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The council, which has representation on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, has criticized al-Sadr in the past.
Al-Sadr delivered his usual Friday sermon in Kufa, six miles northeast of Najaf. He told thousands of followers that a videotape released this week showing the grisly beheading of a 26-year-old American businessman in Iraq by militants with ties to al-Qaida was "fabricated to marginalize the suffering of Iraqis in the occupation-run prisons." A CD of his sermon was available on Baghdad streets hours after his appearance.
Sheik Raed al Kadhemi, the director of al-Sadr's Kadhemiya office, said the cleric's followers no longer wanted to proceed with an agreement for peacefully resolving the southern standoff. Al-Sadr aides in other cities vowed more anti-American attacks, and one encouraged Shiites to register for suicide squads, according to news reports.
Kadhemi told the story of a young Iranian man who had a nightmare about U.S. troops bombing the Imam Ali shrine. He recruited three friends and they crossed the border earlier this month to join the Mahdi Army, said Kadhemi, who added that he helped the man enlist. The man died this week in clashes with American troops, Kadhemi said, leaving behind a story used to inspire other militiamen to fight until "martyrdom."
Kadhemi stopped short of calling al-Sadr's older, mainstream rivals cowards for failing to issue an edict for all-out holy war.
"What are they waiting for?" Kadhemi complained. "Are they worried because they're so old, something like 80 or 90? The pictures speak for themselves—tanks in our graveyards. They should get the courage to act against this, and God will reward them."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Carol Rosenberg and special correspondent Ahmed Mukhtar contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040514 USIRAQ Najaf