Cleric vows to fight on in Iraq’s Najaf; 360 dead

NAJAF, Iraq, Reuters

A firebrand Shiite cleric on Monday defied demands from Iraq’s interim government that his militia pull out of Najaf, after days of fierce clashes with U.S. Marines who claim to have killed 360 of his fighters.

Heavily armed Marines backed by aircraft tightened their noose around the holy city in heavy battles on Monday, but a senior U.S. military official denied coalition forces were hunting the young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr thundered defiance during a news conference at Najaf’s holiest shrine, the Imam Ali mosque.

“The Mehdi Army and I will keep resisting. I will stay in holy Najaf and will never leave,” Sadr said. “I will stay here until my last drop of blood.”

In a move that rocked Iraq’s political establishment, an Iraqi judge issued arrest warrants against leading politician and former Pentagon darling Ahmad Chalabi and his nephew Salem Chalabi, the U.S.-appointed lawyer supervising Saddam Hussein’s trial.

Both men dismissed the charges as groundless and politically motivated. Salem Chalabi said a murder charge against him was aimed at undermining the trial of the former dictator. The fresh Shiite uprising poses the most serious test yet for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi since he took over from U.S.-led occupiers on June 28.

The U.S. military official said Marines had killed at least 360 loyalists from Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia since the uprising in Najaf erupted on Thursday.

As well as the bloody battles in Najaf, fighting in other cities has killed dozens in recent days.

In the southern city of Basra, British troops fought street gunbattles with Mehdi Army militiamen, who set fire to two British military Land Rovers. Five British soldiers were wounded.

A military spokeswoman said Iraq’s second largest city and southern oil production center was “extremely tense”.

Fresh clashes also broke out in a Shiite district of Baghdad named after Sadr’s father on Monday.

The government imposed a curfew from 4 p.m. until 8 a.m. until further notice in the sprawling Sadr City slum, home to two million people, but residents ignored the order.

Explosions and gunfire echoed from the heart of Najaf, Iraq’s holiest Shiite city 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad. Smoke rose from near an ancient cemetery, scene of hand-to-hand combat in recent days, as U.S. aircraft flew overhead.

Allawi visited the shell-scarred city on Sunday and demanded Sadr’s militia back down. Sadr, a hero to Iraq’s downtrodden Shiite youth, rejected the order to quit his hometown.

“In the presence of occupation, there are no politics,” he said. “You can’t twin democracy and occupation, you can’t twin freedom and occupation.” Zuhair al-Maliki, the U.S.-appointed chief investigative judge of the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, said an arrest warrant had been issued against Ahmad Chalabi in connection with counterfeiting money and against Salem on a murder charge.

Both men are outside the country.

Salem Chalabi, a lawyer leading the work of the Iraqi Special Tribunal which will try Saddam, said the charge alleged that he had threatened someone who was later killed.

Speaking to BBC radio, he said the judge seeking his arrest had criticized the procedures established for trying Saddam.

“The fact that it (the warrant) was leaked means there was some element of a smear campaign against me, and therefore against the tribunal, trying to discredit the tribunal, which I think has happened now,” Salem Chalabi said in London.