COALITION troops engaged in heavy fighting with militants loyal to the outlawed Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf yesterday in clashes that left at least 13 Iraqis dead and damaged one of the holiest Shia sites in Iraq.
It was unclear which side was responsible for causing the minor damage to the Imam Ali mosque, but a high-ranking cleric accused Sadr’s militia of deliberately attacking the revered shrine.
Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Mehri, the Kuwaiti representative of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, said the Sadr militia fired a mortar shell at the dome of the shrine but missed it and hit a wall instead.
Ayatollah Mehri called the attack "a cowardly act" and said Sadr loyalists should not use the shrine for storing their weapons and as a sanctuary.
"We want to tell the world, and America, that Muqtada al-Sadr is not one of us, and this is a conspiracy against Shiites so that we don’t get any [political] rights," Ayatollah Mehri said, referring to Shiite demands for greater political representation in the new Iraq.
Any attack on the holy site would be seen as deeply provocative by Shiite Muslims.
Ayatollah Mehri represents Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the pre-eminent Shiite religious leader in Iraq.
After fighting near the shrine eased yesterday, people gathered to look at the damage to the inner gate of the mosque, which leads to the tomb of Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib. Imam Ali was the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law. He is the most revered saint among Shiite Muslims.
Al-Jazeera television showed a torn veil covering the gate, and damage on the wall around it. It also showed several injured people lying on the floor of the mosque compound, and an angry crowd of more than 100 shouting and shaking their fists.
Supporters of Sadr accused the United States of firing mortars at the mosque, but Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt of the US military said that the shell that hit the shrine was not American and was not fired by coalition forces.
Ayatollah Mehri said the Sadr militia was "trying to agitate world opinion against the coalition" by claiming that coalition forces attacked the shrine. He said the militia include Saddam loyalists.
Fighting in Najaf and other cities with Shiite shrines south of Baghdad have raised alarm among Shiites throughout the world who fear damage to the sacred sites. US officials insist they have been careful to avoid damaging the shrines.
Sadr launched an uprising in April after the coalition authorities closed down his newspaper and issued a warrant for his arrest in connection with the murder last year of a moderate religious leader.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad yesterday, a car bomb near a hotel wounded at least five Iraqis, the US military said. The target of the blast, about 100 yards from the Australian embassy, was not immediately clear. Brig-Gen Kimmitt said the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber.
Police said they believed the car bomb might have been aimed at the Australian embassy but detonated prematurely. The Australian government said its troops in Iraq were investigating.
Australia sent 2,000 soldiers to take part in the invasion and still has 850 military personnel in the country.
The attack in the Jadiriyah district occurred about 50 yards from the Karma Hotel, where foreign journalists and United Nations weapons inspectors used to stay before the war.
Colonel Mike Murray, of the US army, said he did not believe any westerners were guests at the hotel.
He said five Iraqis were injured, including a ten-year-old boy who was critically hurt. Windows in nearby buildings were shattered.
Later yesterday, insurgents fired rockets at the al-Betaween police station, in Baghdad, triggering huge blasts and wounding a US soldier, witnesses said.
Also yesterday, saboteurs detonated explosives at a bridge in the town of Numaniya, destroying part of it and disrupting traffic. Witnesses said coalition forces had often used the bridge, south-east of Baghdad.
Elsewhere, a Turkish official said a bomb had stopped the flow of Iraqi oil to an export terminal in Turkey, cutting Iraq’s export capacity by some 400,000 barrels per day.
The explosion on Monday damaged parts of a twin pipeline from Iraqi oilfields near Kirkuk to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, he said.
Iraq’s exports have recently averaged about 1.65 million barrels per day.