U.S. and Iraqi troops are waging a major offensive against militants loyal to a radical Shiite cleric in the holy city of Najaf. The fighting centers on a shrine that is one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, where the militants are holed up. Iraqi officials say only Iraqi security forces are authorized to enter the shrine.
A U.S. military spokesman said the operation under way in Najaf is aimed at isolating the militants in the shrine they are using as a base of operations. But American troops have stayed out of the shrine itself.
Interior ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim says only Iraqi security forces will be allowed to enter the shrine.
"The multinational forces, and we made it clear to them, they are in a supporting role and under no circumstances will they enter the holy shrine," he said.
The Shrine of Imam Ali is one of the holiest sites for Shia Muslims, and is also considered sacred to Sunni Muslims. For more than a week, U.S. and Iraqi forces have been fighting militants loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr around the shrine, and inside a nearby cemetery. The unrest has already angered many Muslims who fear the desecration of the holy site. Protests erupted in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra Thursday after the latest assault in Najaf began.
But it seems clear that unless there is some kind of negotiated settlement, Iraqi troops will have to enter the mosque by force. Mr. Kadhim says the militants are using it as a staging point.
"These are holy shrines and they ought to be protected," he said. "Unfortunately the masked men are using weapons from inside. A good example is today, where they have actually used mortar rounds, 25 of them, directed from inside the holy place, to the Najaf police station. This is completely unacceptable, and this is why really we would like to settle this matter as soon as possible."
Heavy fighting is also reported around the home of Moqtada al-Sadr, but it is not clear whether he was at home at the time. He has vowed to fight the Americans until, "his last drop of blood is spilled." He has urged his militia, known as the Mahdi Army, to fight on even if he is killed or captured.
Television coverage from Najaf shows a steady stream of women and children leaving the conflict zone. Hundreds of civilians are believed to have fled the area in the last few days, after American announcements over loudspeakers advised them to evacuate.
In Baghdad, where a protest broke out in a Shia neighborhood Thursday, one influential Sunni Muslim group has called on its followers to show solidarity with the militants in Najaf.
The imam of a local mosque, Al-Sheikh Saad al-Jibouri, is member of the Muslim Scholars Committee.
He says, The committee issued a statement asking all Muslims to cooperate with their brothers in Najaf, and not leave them to face the occupiers alone.
Mr. al-Jibouri said the group is calling for humanitarian and medical aid for Najaf, but it stopped short of calling on its followers to actually join in the fighting.