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Muqtada sticks to his guns

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.

The 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 Baghdad.

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 of supplies.

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."

Muqtada's 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 last year.

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 heart condition.

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 commented.

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."

Iraq's 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.

Iraq's 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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Aug 11, 2004

Muqtada stirs new storms
(Aug 7, '04)


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