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Rebuilding plan for Najaf would raze al-Sadr's office

NAJAF, Iraq—A multimillion-dollar U.S.-Iraq venture to rebuild the holy city of Najaf, damaged by war and years of neglect, will bring new clinics, new schools and new roads, Najaf's top reconstruction official said Tuesday.

One thing that won't be part of the new landscape is radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's office, from which he launched the insurgency that laid siege to Najaf for five months and devastated the city center in clashes with American forces last month.

Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi is seeking approval from Shiite spiritual leaders and from the prime minister's reconstruction committee to create a 131-yard-wide building-free zone around the Grand Imam Ali Shrine. Al-Sadr's office would be razed in the process.

The proposed clearing is nearly twice the size already approved for a clear zone aimed at increasing security and allowing easier access for religious pilgrims and visitors to the shrine, said Zurufi's chief of staff, Majid Sahib Jabreen. The shrine is holy to Shiite Muslims worldwide.

Even if they stick with a 71-yard-wide zone, the office will have to go, Jabreen said.

"Everybody wants that (zone) because it'll help a lot visitors and pilgrims to come and visit the shrine," he added.

With the street outside the shrine the site of some horrific attacks since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, increasing security around the holy compound is a major concern for Najaf authorities.

But al-Sadr advisers, already steaming over recent police raids and demonstrations against the cleric to force him out of Najaf, see it as another ploy to weaken him. Abandoning his location near the shrine would likely reduce the legitimacy of his movement, which relies heavily on his being linked to the Shiite hierarchy in Najaf. Al-Sadr's legendary father, who was slain by Saddam's regime, was part of that elite.

An al-Sadr spokesman on Tuesday dismissed Zurufi as an American puppet and said al-Sadr won't budge on his say-so. Only Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, who brokered a deal between al-Sadr and the Iraqi interim government that ended the battle in Najaf last month, can make that decision, spokesman Hossam al-Husseini said.

An al-Sistani spokesman refused to comment.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.