BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a renewed assault Sunday on Shiite Muslim militiamen in the southern holy city of Najaf in a risky campaign that was marred from the onset by an outcry from Iraqi politicians and the desertion of dozens of Iraqi troops who refused to fight their countrymen.
The latest siege began Sunday afternoon, a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's administration announced that fighting would resume after negotiations between government officials and aides to Muqtada al-Sadr failed to end the militant cleric's 10-day rebellion. The failed cease-fire talks, desertions and renewed fighting further undermined Allawi's leadership just as Iraq was poised to take its first step toward free elections by picking a national assembly.
More than 100 delegates walked out of a national conference that was hailed as Iraq's first experiment with democracy after decades of dictatorship. Enraged over the fresh violence in Najaf, the delegates left the meeting hall declaring that, "as long as there are airstrikes and shelling, we can't have a conference."
The day's events illustrated the dilemma that plagues Allawi and his American supporters.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Allawi to establish his leadership, hold Iraq together and prod the country toward democracy without crushing his militant opponents, not only in the Shiite south but also in the old Saddam Hussein strongholds north and west of the capital. But to do that, Allawi must rely on unpopular U.S. troops, whose offensives only lend support to the charge that Allawi is an American puppet.
Sunday's showdown in Najaf was troubled even before the fighting resumed. Several officials from the Iraqi defense ministry told Knight Ridder that more than 100 Iraqi national guardsmen and a battalion of Iraqi soldiers chose to quit rather than attack fellow Iraqis in a city that includes some of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. An Iraqi army battalion generally consists of 600-900 soldiers. Neither U.S. military officials nor Iraqi government officials would confirm the resignations.
"We received a report that a whole battalion (in Najaf) threw down their rifles," said one high-ranking defense ministry official, who didn't want his name published because he's not an official spokesman. "We expected this, and we expect it again and again."
"In Najaf, there are no Iraqi Army or police involved in the fighting. There were in the beginning, but later the American forces led the fighting," said Raad Kadhemi, a spokesman for al-Sadr. "Only the mercenaries and the bastards are supporting the Americans and helping them ... We salute our brothers who abandoned participating in the fight against the Mahdi Army."
Arabic-language satellite channels broadcast live all day from inside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, where dozens of members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia chanted vows to defend the holy site. Plumes of smoke rose from just outside the shrine, and reporters heard the crackle of machine-gun fire and the deeper booms of tank and mortar rounds. Many journalists had fled the area after Iraqi police evicted them and threatened them with arrest if they stayed.
Sober-faced Iraqi colonels gathered inside the defense ministry command center, their cell phones ringing with continuous updates from the battlefield. American military advisers wandered in and out of the room, located at the end of a marble hallway in the massive, heavily guarded palace that serves as headquarters for U.S.-led forces and American civilian administrators.
"Aziz is trapped in the ancient fortress with two wounded men and two of his vehicles surrounded!" shouted one Iraqi officer.
The officers, most of them decorated veterans from the former regime, shook their heads at the thought of Iraqis battling Iraqis on sacred soil. Several said they would resign immediately if senior officers ordered them to serve in Najaf. They asked to withhold their names for fear of reprimand.
"I'm ready to fight for my country's independence and for my country's stability," one lieutenant colonel said. "But I won't fight my own people."
"No way," added another officer, who said his brother—a colonel—quit the same day he received orders to serve in the field. "These are my people. Why should I fight someone just because he has a difference in opinion about the future of the country?"
However, an Iraqi military analyst inside the ministry defended the assault, saying that crushing al-Sadr's militia would finally bring stability to the volatile southern Shiite region and smooth the way to national elections. The analyst, who spoke on background because he wasn't authorized to give interviews, said force was the last resort because "dialogue and rational policy" had failed with al-Sadr's men.
The analyst said Iraqi forces are taking precautions against damaging the Imam Ali shrine, a place of pilgrimage for millions of Shiites, but added that battles in the area were inevitable because militiamen holed up there were attacking from the shrine.
"Iraqi forces will shoot them even if they are inside," the official said. "The militia itself has violated this place, storing weapons there and using it as a fort."
Halfway through the interview, two mortars landed outside his office with deafening thuds that rattled windows throughout the building.
"That? That's just music," the analyst said with a grim smile.
Another mortar strike Sunday killed two Iraqis and wounded 17 at a bus station near the Baghdad convention center, where the national conference was under way. Pools of blood dried in the blazing sun and pieces of flesh were still stuck to the seats of a bus at the scene. In total, nine Iraqis died and 56 were injured in Sunday's violence in Baghdad, according to the Iraqi health ministry.
At an Iraqi national guard base near the border of Sadr City, the vast Baghdad slum that serves as al-Sadr's support base and recruiting ground, 1st Sgt. Khalid Ali described the death threats he and other Iraqi troops have received from the Mahdi Army. He drew distinctions between fighting fellow Iraqis and fighting militiamen, whom he holds responsible for the deaths of two of his relatives.
"There are concerns about what's happening in Najaf because most of the people working here are Shiite and they are concerned about what happens to their sacred sites," Ali said. "We do not fight our brothers, we fight against those people who are sabotaging our country. The Mahdi Army is not Shiite, they are saboteurs."
But when Ali was asked about the number of guardsmen who have quit since al-Sadr's latest uprising, U.S. Army 1st Lt. Vernon Sparkmon cut him off.
"Certain things, you can't discuss," Sparkmon told Ali. "If somebody asks that question, that's, like, classified stuff."
(Lasseter reports for The Miami Herald; Hannah reports for the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.