BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. forces struck deep into a holy cemetery in the city of Najaf on Tuesday, using tanks and helicopters in the sixth straight day of fighting that's threatened the security and political stability of Iraq.
Town residents, reached by phone, said the heavy tank fire and airstrikes in the cemetery, in which Shiite Muslims from across the nation come to bury their dead, began in the afternoon and lasted for hours, sending rumbles through the town and tightening a perimeter around the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in a statement Tuesday night issued a stiff warning to al-Sadr's men—referring to them as "gangs"—to lay down their arms.
If they refused, he said, "in response to these criminal and destructive acts, your government has decided to hit back with an iron fist" with "courageous security services to teach these criminal outlaws the lesson they deserve."
Allawi's statement said that the shutdown of oil pipelines in the south, reportedly because of al-Sadr-related violence, had cut the country's oil export by 50 percent, costing Iraq $30 million a day.
It was unclear how Allawi would enforce the threat, with his authority facing widespread challenge.
A curfew imposed by Allawi's government Monday on the restive Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City was ignored by most. An al-Sadr spokesman reacted by calling for a curfew across all of Baghdad Tuesday, a demand that seemed to have more effect on the streets of the nation's capital, which were noticeably quieter than usual.
The powerful Shiite Muslim political bloc that brokered a peace deal between al-Sadr and, by proxy, the Americans in June has split, members said. On one side of the Shiite house are Allawi and his allies, including national security adviser Mouwaffaq al Rubaie. On the other is a group of leaders, many of them left out of the interim government, who have taken charge in the current negotiations with al-Sadr, undercutting Allawi's role as a Shiite statesmen.
A majority of Iraq's population is Shiite.
In southern Iraq, the head of a provincial council said its government might cut its oil flow and close down highways to Baghdad to protest Allawi's cooperation with Marines in Najaf.
The national interim government, said Ali al Musawi, is "an illegal and unelected Iraqi government that came in the name of an occupying force that claimed it wanted to liberate Iraq but has come to kill the sons of Iraq."
Al Musawi's province, Maysan, includes the city of Amarah, which has been the scene of recent clashes between al-Sadr's fighters and British troops.
There was no indication Tuesday that al Musawi's words would result in any concrete action, but they showed a growing erosion of support for Allawi and the U.S.-backed plan for the transition to Iraqi self-rule.
Waeil Abdel-Latif, Iraq's minister of state for provinces, said the outlying areas were still under the command of Allawi's government.
"There is no double authority in Iraq," he said. "The Iraqi government is in charge."
Asked about reports that a member of the Basra provincial council had called for secession from Iraq, Abdel-Latif said the official was a follower of al-Sadr and "his opinions have no administrative value."
Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, named for the Shiite Messiah, has battled since Thursday in southern and central Iraq. At least 475 Iraqis have died in the fighting, with 603 wounded, according to figures from the U.S. military and the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which have been unable to get numbers from Najaf during the past two days because of violence there.
In Najaf, at least four American troops have been killed and 19 wounded as of Monday; in addition, at least four Iraqi national guardsmen have been killed and 12 injured.
The cemetery where Tuesday's fighting took place would be off-limits under conventional rules of war, but Marines in Najaf have said the restriction doesn't apply because the cemetery is being used as a rebel staging area.
"We will not allow them to continue to desecrate this sacred site, using it as an insurgent base of operations," Marine Col Anthony M. Haslam said in a release. "There will be no sanctuary for thugs and criminals in Najaf."
Despite Haslam's threat, the U.S. military has been extremely cautious about taking the fight into the Imam Ali shrine, the holiest site in Shiite Islam and current headquarters for al-Sadr.
In the sprawling slum of Sadr City on Tuesday, Mahdi troops seemed to be on every corner. Crowds of gunmen blocked roads, holding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. A Mahdi member walked up in the middle of the street, holding a flour bag full of blocks of plastic explosives and detonation wire that he handed out to a crowd of fighters.
Huda Ismail, a female Mahdi Army fighter carrying a machine gun, was asked what she planned to do if the Americans entered Sadr City.
"This is a threat from me personally. I want to say it clearly. We will kill for Muqtada. I am a suicide fighter for this country. I will blow myself up," she said. "I am warning Iyad Allawi and his government: We will crush them with our shoes."
A Mahdi commander in Sadr City said his men are waiting to see whether the Marines in Najaf enter the space around the Imam Ali shrine. Should U.S. troops take the fight to the shrine—something the governor of Najaf has said he would allow—then "we will go on jihad ... all of us _men, women and old men—we will be suicide fighters."
A line of 20 M1-A1 Abrams tanks and 20 Bradley fighting vehicles was headed toward Sadr City Tuesday afternoon, presumably to take positions on the outskirts of town.
In Najaf, Marine and Iraqi security forces called from loudspeakers and distributed leaflets in the neighborhood next to the shrine, advising residents to leave their homes or risk being caught in the crossfire.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Shatha Alawsy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040810 Iraq attacks