Iraq On A Knife-Edge

By Donald Macintyre
The Independent - UK
BAGHDAD -- The new Iraq was on a knife-edge last night as violence and political instability confronted the regime of Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister.
In Basra, a British soldier was killed yesterday and several others wounded. Land Rovers were set on fire in clashes with the militia of the Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr, which now controls city's major junctions.
The world oil price climbed to a new high of $44.97 (£24.44) a barrel as oil facilities were targeted by the same militia and Iraq stopped pumping oil in its strategic southern oil fields.
In the Shia holy city of Najaf there were fierce clashes for a fifth day running between US soldiers and Sadr insurgents who have vowed to fight to the death. The fighting has claimed 360 lives since Thursday, according to the US military.
In Baghdad a curfew was imposed on Sadr City because of intense fighting between Sadr's militia and US forces, and in Baquba seven people were killed and 17 wounded, including the assistant governor of Diyala province, in a suicide car bomb attack as he left his house in the village of Balad Ruz.
Meanwhile, moves against Ahmed Chalabi, the man once seen as the most likely prime minister of a post-Saddam Iraq, were denounced as politically motivated. Mr Chalabi has been accused of counterfeiting, while his nephew, Salem Chalabi, the head of the tribunal trying Saddam, is wanted for murder.
The crisis across the country was being met with a determined new stand by Mr Allawi.
His administration approved, in principle, attacks on the compound containing the holy Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, which the US military yesterday said was being used as a base for attacks by insurgents loyal to Sadr. Almost 4,000 US and Iraqi forces confronted about 2,000 militia dug in around and at the holy sites in the heart of Najaf, which since Thursday has become the focal point of the new Iraqi state's efforts to defeat a 15-month-old insurgency.
The day after Mr Allawi warned on a visit to the city that there would be "no negotiations or truce" with leaders of the armed rebellion, an equally uncompromising Sadr declared: "I will continue fighting. I will remain in Najaf until the last drop of my blood has been spilled."
Mr Allawi's government ordered a nightly, 14-hour curfew in the mainly Shia Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, scene of repeated engagements between US forces and gunmen loyal to the cleric since the fighting began in Najaf last week.
As US and Iraqi forces fought to clear sections of Najaf's ancient cemetery of gunmen and weapons, seven Iraqi policemen were killed when an early morning roadside bomb exploded close to the home of the Assistant Governor of Diyala in a separate attack in the village of Balad Ruz, just east of Baghdad. Hakil Hamid Barias was wounded and evacuated.
A senior military official yesterday stood by the so-far uncorroborated and contested death toll for the fighting in Najaf issued by the US Marines last Friday and said that 360 insurgents had now been killed since the fighting began. The official said that five US troops and at least four Iraqi National Guardsmen had also been killed but gave no estimate of possible civilian casualties.
The official added that the governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi who met Mr Allawi on Sunday, "has given us approval to conduct operations in and around the [Imam Ali] shrine. We have elected at this point not conduct operations there, although we are prepared to do so at a moment's notice."
He said that around 2,000 US Marines, supported by US Calvary units and 1,800 Iraqi National Guards (ING) and police were now massed at the city. The official said US and Iraqi forces had been moving into the cemetery to clear an area but "as they pull back the Mehdi militia will come back into the cemetery and continue to launch attacks. The primary objective right now is to take additional ground from these insurgents."
The official insisted that by using the holy sites - including the mosque at its heart - as a base, the insurgents had forfeited the sites' protection under international law. Nevertheless according to some military sources here, senior US officers remain highly aware of the incalculable sensitivities that an all-out assault on the holy sites would inflame, posing an acute dilemma on how to defeat the insurgents without provoking an international storm of protest throughout the Muslim world.
Meanwhile by some accounts, the growing projection of Mr Allawi as a strong leader could yet be boosted by the arrest warrants issued at the weekend against Mr Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress and the interim Prime Minister's long-time rival in the ranks of opposition to Saddam Hussein, and Mr Chalabi's nephew Salem, the official administering the tribunal due to try Saddam Hussein.
Both men - who are not in Iraq at present - rejected the charges. Ahmed Chalabi said that he "could easily prove that these charges are untrue and I intend to defend myself and clear my name". Salem Chalabi suggested that the charges had been "trumped up by Baathists" anxious to undermine the trial of Saddam Hussein.
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd



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