The interim Iraqi government last night looked increasingly prepared to impose martial law on sections of the country as coalition and Iraqi forces fought fierce battles with armed insurgents loyal to the radical Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr.
There were strong hints that Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, could for the first time apply his emergency powers when he announces plans for tackling the spreading insurgency tomorrow.
Supporters of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr chant anti-U.S. slogans as they drive past a U.S. Army soldier in the capital Baghdad, August 6, 2004. U.S. forces backed by helicopter gunships battled militia loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the holy city of Naja, fueling fears of a second Shi'ite uprising. (Ali Jasim/Reuters)
An American UH-1 helicopter crash-landed after being hit in the holy Shia city of Najaf during fighting that Falah al-Nakib, Iraq's Interior Minister, said yesterday had claimed the lives of eight insurgents. Iraqi medics said seven civilians were killed.
Mr Nakib told a swiftly convened news conference yesterday that he and Mr Allawi had taken "the necessary decisions to confront these challenges" and charged that the fresh uprising in Najaf and Wednesday's fighting in Mosul, in the north, were part of an "organised plan to dismember Iraq and kill the Iraqi people... All of these terrorists and killers are working for the same organisation regardless of which banners they carry or which hats they wear".
The hints followed a declaration in yesterday's Iraqi mediaby Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, the interim President, that "it is the time to use the new national safety law" to protect the country against insurgents. The battles in Najaf, the worst since a conditional truce two months ago, ended several weeks of fighting between Sadr and US forces, and triggered further violence when gunmen took control of parts of the Shia Baghdad suburb of Sadr City and wounded seven US soldiers.
In the south of the country, British soldiers were said by a spokesman for Sadr's forces to have killed one insurgent and injured three after they ambushed an Army patrol.
In Amarah, in the British military zone, insurgents fired at government buildings after Mehdi Army leaders appealed through mosque loudspeakers for its members to mobilize.
Mr Nakib and a senior US officer were adamant yesterday that the fighting in Najaf had started because Mehdi Army insurgents had attacked a police station in the city with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. The US military source said that Iraqi forces had called in US forces after repelling two attacks by the insurgents.
While Mr Nakib said Iraqi forces were ready to arrest "all criminals including him [Sadr]", the senior US officer here said its forces had not been pursuing the detention of Sadr, wanted in connection with the killing of a rival Shia cleric. The US military has denied that it deliberately surrounded Sadr's house during engagements on Tuesday.
Striking a bellicose note, Mr Nakib said the Iraqi police and supporting forces had gained "glorious victories" in the continuing fighting, and blamed Iraq's neighbours for fuelling the insurgency. He said Lebanese and Iranians were among those captured. He also criticised Arab television networks for their coverage of the insurgency. Mr Nakib said the transmission of hostage-takers' videos depicted Iraqis to the world as "savages".
There have been hints from Mr Allawi's allies that censorship could be imposed and even threats to close down al-Jazeera's Baghdad bureau unless its coverage is changed. Later, a spokesman for Mr Sadr said the cleric wanted to restore his truce.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd