Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr urged his Mehdi Army to continue fighting US and Iraqi government forces after the militia holding out in Najaf's shrine area were pounded by the heaviest bombardment yet in the 16-day standoff.
The militia leader's defiant call, delivered as usual via a spokesman, followed a letter circulated late Thursday in which he refused to disarm in the wake of a "final warning" to do so from Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
At the same time, spokesman Sheikh Ahmed al-Shaibani said the militia was prepared to hand over control of the Imam Ali mausoleum in the heart of Najaf to the highest Shiite religious authority in Iraq, but there was a catch.
The second bomb explodes on the first building targeted during a U.S. aerial assault on insurgents in Najaf, Iraq, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004. High-altitude jet fighters dropped four bombs in the area. (AP Photo/Jim MacMillan)
"Moqtada Sadr has asked his fighters to continue the fight," Shaibani told AFP at the shrine, one of the holiest Shiite pilgrimage sites in the world, which was taken over by the cleric's forces on April 5 after Sadr began his rebellion.
"The Mehdi Army is ready to leave the mausoleum and hand over the keys to the leaders of the Marjaiya, Ali Sistani and Kazem al-Haeri, but unfortunately they are not here," said Shaibani.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's majority Shiite population, is in London following hospital treatment, while Haeri is based in the Iranian holy city of Qom.
Deafening explosions engulfed central Najaf after nightfall, as guns fired, US helicopters and warplanes screeched overhead and smoke filled the sky above the Old City, at the heart of which lies the Imam Ali shrine.
An AFP correspondent said the bombardment was the heaviest since the fighting began on August 5 after the collapse of an earlier truce.
But by the time dawn broke Najaf was eerily quiet and not a single gunshot was heard in the city, where some 3,000 US and Iraqi government troops are facing some 1,000 militia.
Repeating the contents of Sadr's alleged Thursday letter, Shaibani said the Mehdi Army would not be disarmed "because we don't have the right to do so."
"This is the army of Imam Mehdi," he said, referring to the so-called 12th imam, who Shiites believe one day will return to this world.
The spokesman dismissed Allawi's call Thursday for the militiamen to disarm, quit the shrine and enter mainstream politics or face military defeat, saying the threats were dictated by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a "government ordered by the Americans".
Supporters of radical Iraqi Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr chant inside Najaf's Imam Ali shrine, August 19, 2004. Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued 'a final call' to Sadr on Thursday to disarm his militia and leave the holy shrine in the city of Najaf. Photo by Chris Helgren/Reuters
In the main southern city of Basra Friday, the British military said the number of security guards around key oil infrastructure had been stepped up after the Mehdi Army torched the offices and warehouses of the South Oil Company.
"The fire at the South Oil Company has been dealt with and there is no effect on oil production. The number of security guards around the oil infrastructure has also been increased," a spokeswoman said.
The fire was extinguished by Iraqi firemen, she said. British military spokesmen insisted that the number of sporadic small arms fire and erratic mortar attacks were less than in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, the US military confirmed that a three-day offensive operation, in league with Iraqi security forces, was continuing in Sadr's Baghdad bastion, the sprawling slum neighborhood of Sadr City.
The health ministry said 10 people had been killed and 79 wounded in the 24 hours to Friday morning. Two US soldiers have been killed and another two wounded since the operation began on Wednesday.
In what is one of the most depressed areas of the Iraqi capital, the US military have slammed militia attacks, "intimidation" and "threats" for delaying multi-million dollar reconstruction projects in the area.
An AFP photographer said US tanks were parked in the center of the slum and that armored vehicles had blocked off the three main streets leading into the district, ahead of the main weekly Friday prayers.
West of Baghdad, two Iraqis were killed and 11 others wounded in a double US airstrike on the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Fallujah in less than 12 hours, a doctor said Friday.
Both strikes pounded the industrial zone of the flashpoint city, said doctor Ahmed Shakir Khadouri from the Fallujah general hospital.
Two security guards were killed overnight and four people, including three women and a child, were wounded when the second attack hit an ice cream factory early Friday, Khadouri added.
Another seven people were admitted to the hospital following the overnight raid, the source said.
A US military spokesman said the airstrikes were ordered to take out two anti-aircraft guns and protect US air assets.
© Copyright 2004 AFP