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Najaf: Confusion Remains Over Who Controls Iraqi Shrine - 2004-08-20


There are conflicting reports about who controls a shrine in the Iraqi city of Najaf, where militants have been holed up for weeks. The Interior Ministry says police entered the mosque and arrested hundreds of fighters, but sources in Najaf dispute that claim.

There is major confusion over the situation in Najaf. The Interior Ministry claims that militants in the Shrine of Imam Ali have surrendered. But representatives of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr deny that they have handed the mosque over.

Interior Ministry Spokesman Sabah Kadhim told VOA that Iraqi security forces surrounded the shrine before moving in, and then entered peacefully.

"Three o'clock this afternoon, the Iraqi police entered the mosque, without a shot being fired, and they discovered 500 people inside, in a helpless situation, and they had light arms with them," said Sabah Kadhim. "They were prepared to surrender. They needed food, which was provided, in cooperation with the appropriate religious authorities, who took over the mosque."

Journalists who spent all afternoon inside the shrine say they did not see a single policeman enter the building. An Associated Press reporter, however, says he witnessed militants removing their weapons from the shrine.

Iraqi police in Najaf told CNN they do not control the mosque.

Mr. Kadhim says police left the shrine shortly after they entered it. He says they have turned the building over to representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most senior Shia cleric in Iraq. Mr. Sistani himself is in London for medical treatment.

Earlier, a spokesman for Mr. al-Sadr said his militia, the Mahdi Army, was preparing to turn the shrine over to Mr. al-Sistani's people, but he says they have not yet handed over the keys.

The Interior Ministry spokesman, Mr. Kadhim, says there is no sign of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric leading the rebellion.

"So far, we have not discovered the whereabouts of Mr. al-Sadr or his assistants," he said. "It is possible that there are accesses from the holy shrine that he might have used to move out, or possibly, he was already outside it."

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has offered what he terms an olive branch to Mr. al-Sadr, repeatedly urging him to lay down his weapons and enter the political process. But the firebrand cleric has consistently rejected government entreaties, and has, in turn, told Mr. Allawi to resign, calling him an illegitimate leader.

Mr. al-Sadr has vowed to continue fighting the Americans until his last drop of blood is spilled.

Mr. Kadhim says the offer of amnesty still stands.

"If he is prepared to enter the political arena, fine," Mr. Kadhim said. "But if he is going to take up arms against the government, well, we will not accept that."

The standoff in Najaf has dragged on for weeks, and the unrest has spread to other cities, including an impoverished Shi'ite slum in the capital, known as Sadr City, named for Moqtada al-Sadr's late father.

At Friday prayers in a Shi'ite mosque near Sadr City, the message was one of defiance.

Imam Majid al-Saeedi says, "I want to tell this government that, if you try to humiliate Moqtada al-Sadr and bring him down because he has become a patriotic symbol, you will fail."

The response from many worshippers was the same.

They chanted, "No, no, America."

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