BAGHDAD - For the sixth day
running, fighting continued on Tuesday in Iraq's holy
Shi'ite city of Najaf between soldiers loyal to cleric
Muqtada al-Sadr and US-led forces.
clashes erupted early in the morning after a night of
intermittent gunfire. US officials say that they have
killed 360 of Muqtada's Mehdi Army in the recent bout of
fighting, which is part of a radical Shi'ite uprising
that has affected several other Iraqi cities, including
Sadr City, the predominantly Shi'ite district of
Muqtada on Monday rejected demands from
Iraq's interim government that his militia pull out of
Najaf, and threats from his fighters forced a halt to
oil output in the south. "Pumping from the southern
oilfields to storage tanks at Basra was stopped today
[Monday] after threats made by [Muqtada] al-Sadr," said
an Iraqi oil official. He added that militia from the
Mehdi Army had threatened to sabotage production by the
state Southern Oil Co, based in Basra.
"Storage at the Gulf Basra terminal is
sufficient to keep exports running for about two days."
Iraq has been exporting about 1.9 million barrels a day
in recent weeks, 90% of which goes through Basra. Crude
jumped 89 US cents a barrel in New York trading on
Monday to a new high of $44.84 on fears of a disruption
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi
has called on Muqtada to lay down arms and leave the
city, but instead Muqtada called on his supporters to
fight with him to "the last drop of my blood".
Speaking publicly in the Imam Ali shrine, which
serves as his stronghold in Najaf, for the first time
since the latest clashes erupted, Muqtada said it was
"an honor for me to fight the Americans". Referring to
his militia force, which fought US-led forces in the
south for much of April and May, Muqtada said, "I told
the Mehdi Army that I'm one of them. I will not leave
Najaf until the last drop of my blood. I will resist,
and they will resist with me."
defiance is a rebuff for Allawi, who has attempted to
bring the cleric and his followers into the political
process ahead of a national conference next week that
will bring together 1,000 prominent Iraqis to select a
100-member council to oversee Allawi's government in the
runup to parliamentary elections scheduled for next
January. Muqtada's demand for an Iranian-style
theocracy, though, makes him difficult to accommodate.
"We are still trying to make some efforts to
make him say 'yes' to requests to end the fighting in
the southern city," said Georges Sada, a spokesman for
Allawi. "It seems his message is the opposite."
Further complicating the matter is that the
now defunct Iraqi Governing Council this year
approved the issuing of an arrest warrant for Muqtada in
connection with the murder of a rival cleric in Najaf
In his earlier "uprising" this year,
Muqtada finally agreed to a truce after the mediation of
supreme Shi'ite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is
currently in London seeking medical treatment for a
This has prompted newspapers in
Shi'ite-dominated Iran to speculate on Sistani's absence
from Najaf at this time of crisis. Both conservative and
reformist papers in Iran suggest possible hidden motives
behind him being away.
"This provides America
with a golden opportunity to silence once and for all
the Shi'ite theological center," the conservative Kayhan
The conservative Jomhuri-ye Eslami
chipped in, "Precisely in the heat of the clashes in
Najaf, they send Ayatollah Sistani to London on the
pretext of a heart condition, so that Iraq is empty of
Shi'ite authority and things can be sorted out more
easily ... The plan is for Iraq to be emptied of any
resistance force and any opposition voice that creates
the slightest nuisance for America."
interim Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said on Monday
that weapons from Iran were being used by Muqtada's
insurgents. "Iranian-made weapons have been found in the
hands of criminals in Najaf who received these weapons
from across the Iranian border," Shaalan said.
Iran has consistently denied interfering in
Iraq's affairs, saying that it does not allow fighters
to cross into Iraq but that it is difficult to control
the long border with Iraq.
interim Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshiar
al-Zibari, meanwhile, said his government would score a
decisive victory over Muqtada's militia. "This is one of
the first security challenges that faces our new
government. We need to be decisive, we need to be
strong, we need to impose the rule of law and order
throughout the country," Zibari told told reporters.
"The prime minister was very clear ... he will
not allow or tolerate any armed militias to be above the
law and to challenge the police and he asked them to
leave the city," Zibari added.
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