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US-Backed Iraqi Troops Close in On Najaf Shrine - 2004-08-24

Iraqi troops have moved within a few hundred meters of the Imam Ali Shrine in the city of Najaf. The defense minister says he will order them to storm the mosque if the militants inside do not surrender soon. The battle for control of Najaf has gone on for nearly three weeks, and has taken a heavy toll on the civilian population of the city.

Explosions rock the Old City in the center of Najaf, as fighting erupts near the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam.

An agitated crowd has gathered on a street corner about 500 meters from the shrine, oblivious to the blasts nearby. A mortar has just hit a house two blocks away, severely wounding several occupants. Neighbors bundle the injured into a beat-up blue car and race toward the hospital. A bystander describes their injuries.

He says, "one of the women was hit in the chest. I am sure she will die." He says her son lost a hand in the attack.

A few minutes later, three nearly hysterical women walk down the street to the corner where the crowd has gathered. One of them clutches her black abaya [robe] with a hand covered in blood.

They scream : "They killed my son and my mother! Why! This is their blood!"

The women hurl insults at the Americans and Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who they blame for the carnage.

The subject of blame is a sensitive one in Najaf. Some, like these women, blame the U.S. troops and interim Iraqi government. Others point the finger at radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army. The two sides have been battling for nearly three weeks, with most of the fighting concentrated in this neighborhood near the Shrine of Imam Ali.

A man says, "Please tell the Americans to stop bombing this area, because there is no Mahdi Army here, only families and children."

But another man steps in and starts to argue with him.

He says, "The Mahdi Army are here! It's not the fault of the Americans, this is the fault of the Mahdi Army! When will you tell the truth?"

For the victims, it is often not clear who is responsible for any given attack. Many Najaf residents feel caught in the middle, besieged by both sides. This is a fight they did not start, and cannot end, but they are often paying for it in blood.

At the main hospital in Najaf, casualties continue to mount. A skinny 13-year-old boy named Samir lies on his hospital bed with a shrapnel wound in his chest, and another in the hip. He is clearly having trouble breathing, and his relatives massage his left foot in an effort to relieve the pain in his leg.

His father says he was wounded by a mortar Monday afternoon as he ventured out of the house to buy bread.

He says, "who should we complain to? What did this child do to anyone?"

A hospital administrator, Sabah Razi, says his ambulances cannot get to many parts of the city when fighting is heaviest.

He says, anyone who is wounded at night will die, because nobody can get to them to save them.

The fighting in central Najaf has been intense for the past several nights, and new clashes flared during the day Tuesday as Iraqi troops edged closer to the Imam Ali Shrine. The Iraqi defense minister says his troops are closing in on the mosque in preparation to storm it if the militants inside do not surrender.