U.S. Begins Offensive Against Al Sadr
The American military attacked a mosque in this holy city [Karbala] on Tuesday in its largest assault yet against the forces of the rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, even as the first signs emerged of a peaceful resolution to the five-week-long standoff with him.
The strike on the Mukhaiyam Mosque brought hundreds of American soldiers to within a third of a mile of two of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, the shrines of the martyrs Hussein and Abbas. A building behind the mosque was fired on, detonating a huge weapons cache, and soldiers stormed the mosque, chasing insurgents out into a hotel and alley.
By 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, some 30 insurgents had taken up positions around the Shrine of Abbas, and they appeared to be lobbing mortars from that area at the Mukhaiyam Mosque. Special Forces soldiers began organizing groups of Iraqi forces to counterattack. Fighting was still intense five hours later. Casualties could not be immediately determined.
Until now, American forces had kept out of Karbala and nearby Najaf, another holy city, fearing to further inflame Iraqi fury against the occupying forces, now fevered because of widely distributed photographs of American personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners.
But before the attack, Col. Peter Mansoor, commander of the First Brigade of the First Armored Division, said military officers had met with Karbala’s leaders and believed they would support the operation because they want Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army run out of town. American forces may be banking on the belief that Mr. Sadr is loathed by the country’s mainstream Shiite leaders and that many Muslims disagree with his use of mosques as essentially military bases. On Tuesday, several hundred Iraqis marched in Najaf to demand that he and his militia leave.
About 400 people joined a peaceful demonstration Tuesday in Najaf, demanding that the militia of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr leave the city.
Some of the demonstrators called for other Shiite religious leaders to take action against Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army, which has engaged U.S. forces in a month-long standoff. “We ask the religious leadership in Najaf to take the Sadr followers and the Mahdi Army away from the city,” said Abid Turfi, 29, one of the demonstrators.
Followers of Sadr held a counter-demonstration a short time later.
The provincial governor of Najaf, Adnan Zurufi, said Tuesday that he would ask U.S. authorities to defer the prosecution of Sadr on murder charges if his militiamen agreed to disarm and disband.
After meeting with tribal leaders, Zurufi said: “I hope to meet Moqtada Sadr to negotiate about disbanding the Mahdi Army peacefully. If he doesn’t agree to disband it peacefully, it will be disbanded by force.”
In a statement, Sadr repeated his calls for an end to the U.S.-led occupation and said he would be willing to negotiate, but only if the terms were “fair, honest and supervised” by Shiite religious leaders. He is wanted by the occupation authority on charges of involvement in the killing of another Shiite cleric last year.
On Tuesday evening, representatives of Sadr’s militia and several Shiite political groups met at the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.
The U.S. commander responsible for Najaf said Sadr had become increasingly unpopular because his militia has extorted money from people in mosques, businesses and on the street.
This is a very positive sign, especially against the backdrop of the Abu Ghraib scandal and other setbacks for the Coalition. If everyday Iraqis are getting tired of the insurgents and actually willing to stand up for themselves, the chance of success goes up a hundredfold.