Iraq’s top cleric arrives in Najaf on peace mission as a mortar barrage kills 27 at mosque |

Iraq’s top cleric arrives in Najaf on peace mission as a mortar barrage kills 27 at mosque

Associated Press Writer
Iraqi men tend to the injured from a mortar attack on the main mosque in the Iraqi city of Kufa, after the hospital ran out of space to treat the patients, in the garden of a hospital in Kufa, Iraq Thursday Aug. 26, 2004. The mortar barrage hit killed 27 people and wounded 63 others as they prepared to march on the violence-wracked city of Najaf. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s top Shiite cleric returned to Najaf on Thursday in hopes of using the power of his popularity to bring an end to fighting in the holy city. U.S. forces called a cease-fire, but hours earlier, a mortar barrage hit a mosque filled with Iraqis preparing to join the cleric’s march, killing 27 people.

Along with the mortar attack, another group of thousands of marchers heading into Najaf from its sister-city Kufa came under fire from an Iraqi National Guard base. At least three people were killed and 46 wounded.

Including those attacks, around 95 people were killed in Kufa and Najaf during the past 24 hours, the Health Ministry reported.

The violence could undermine the peace effort by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the most widely respected cleric among Iraq’s Shiite majority. His intervention could be the best hope so far to end the fighting between U.S.-Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sistani arrived in a 30-vehicle convoy that drove in from Basra, cheered by thousands of supporters in towns along the way. Urged by al-Sistani’s aides to march for peace, thousands more came from their hometowns to Najaf and gathered on its outskirts, but witnesses said police barred them from entering the city.

Al-Sistani’s office quickly began contacts to push their peace plan, and al-Sadr’s followers said they would listen to his proposals.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi declared a 24-hour ceasefire, and the U.S. military said they would adhere to it “to see if this agreement will be adhered to by al-Sadr,” according to spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory J. Slavonic. Al-Sadr’s officials also said they would stick to a truce.

The heavy fighting in Najaf appeared to ease when al-Sistani arrived, though sporadic gunfire still echoed. Al-Sadr fighters and Iraqi security forces traded fire several hundred yards from al-Sistani’s house, wounding at least three people. Hours later, gunbattles and an explosion could be heard again in the Old City.

With all sides – the Americans, the Iraqi government and al-Sadr – giving at least nominal support to al-Sistani’s efforts, it was not known who fired the mortars that struck the mosque in Kufa or whether it was an attempt to sabotage the peace effort. Iraqi police have shot at peaceful marchers several times in the past few days.

The 75-year-old ayatollah is seeking to bring his enormous popularity to bear to end the fighting, which has killed scores of civilians and nearly paralyzed the city since it began Aug. 5.

In the last 24 hours, 55 people were killed and 376 injured during clashes in Najaf, Sa’ad al-Amili of the Health Ministry said Thursday. At least 40 people have been killed in Kufa over the same period, including the victims in the mosque.

The military said Thursday that a U.S. soldier in Baghdad was killed by a mortar attack the night before. As of Wednesday, 964 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

Al-Sistani – who had been in London undergoing medical treatment – has refused to get involved in previous crises and has stayed above the fray, supporting neither al-Sadr nor the U.S. troops and the pro-U.S. government.

He holds the loyalty of a far broader swath of Iraq’s Shiite majority than al-Sadr. Al-Sadr’s fiery anti-U.S. message has drawn many poorer, disillusioned Shiites but is seen by other Shiites as too radical. Al-Sadr’s followers have set up their own religious courts and arrested hundreds of people on charges including selling alcohol and music deemed immoral.

Al-Sistani is calling for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf and leave security to the police and for the Iraqi government to compensate those harmed by the fighting here.

Al-Sistani’s 30-vehicle convoy drove 220 miles from the southern city of Basra to Najaf, joined by at least a thousand cars from towns along the way, where supporters on the street cheered al-Sistani.

He arrived in Najaf just before 3 p.m. and went directly to one of his houses in the al-Sa’ad neighborhood, about a mile from the revered Imam Ali Shrine, where the militants were holed up.

“Contacts are now going on to solve the crisis. The atmosphere is positive,” Hamed al-Khafaf, an al-Sistani aide, said.

A close al-Sadr aide said the militants would listen to al-Sistani’s peace plan. “We will listen to him and we hope to see the government listen to him as well,” said Yusif al-Nasiri. “They should listen and obey what he is going to say.”

Al-Sadr’s aides had backed al-Sistani’s call for a march on Najaf and urged their followers to join in.

Thousands of Shiites had gathered at the mosque in Kufa, an al-Sadr stronghold, to march to Najaf when the mortar rounds hit – one inside the mosque compound and around two others at the main gate, according to witnesses.

“This is a criminal act. We just wanted to launch a peaceful demonstration,” said Hani Hashem, bringing an injured friend to the hospital.

The blasts killed 27 people and wounded 63, according to Mohammed Abdul Kadhim, an official at Furat al-Awsat hospital in Kufa.

Blood was splattered on the pavement in a courtyard beside the mosque and a pair of sandals was left nearby, according to Associated Press Television News footage. Shrapnel from the explosions tore small chunks out of walls and the pavement, but the compound did not appear to have suffered serious structural damage.

Outside the hospital’s gate, crowds of angry people gathered, shouting “God is great!”

After the attack, thousands of demonstrators loyal to al-Sadr marched on nearby Najaf but came under fire from a base between the two cities housing Iraqi national guardsmen and U.S. troops, witnesses said.

The marchers scattered when the gunfire broke out. The day before, gunfire from the same base killed eight people and wounded 56 others who were taking part in what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration supporting al-Sadr.

Another mortar attack in Kufa on Wednesday, apparently targeting a police checkpoint, killed two civilians, including an 8-year-old boy.

Al-Sadr aide Hussam al-Husseini blamed the mortar attack on American forces backing Iraqi troops in the city. “We held the interim government responsible for this bombing,” he said.

A U.S. military spokesman, Marine Capt. Carrie Batson, denied the Americans fired the barrage, saying troops were still avoiding targeting holy sites in Kufa and Najaf.

One U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was possible that rebels firing at nearby Iraqi National Guard positions overshot their target and hit the mosque.

Any damage inflicted by U.S. forces on holy sites would anger Iraq’s Shiite majority and could spark a greater uprising against the fledgling interim government, which is also battling a persistent and bloody Sunni insurgency.

In other violence, saboteurs attacked about 20 oil pipelines in southern Iraq late Wednesday, reducing exports from the key oil producing region by at least a half, an official with the state-run South Oil Co. said Thursday on condition of anonymity.