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MiddleEast.Org - MID-EAST REALITIES - Washington - 26 August 2004:
Chaos, confusion, death, and destruction -- that's the description of American occupied Iraq as the country virtually rebels and explodes. Even as Ayatollah al-Sistani heads back to Najaf protected by British occupation troops American occupation troops are ferociously attacking Najaf, Fallujah, Sadr City as never before and American armed and paid Iraqi mercenary troops are massacreing their own.

Some sixteen peaceful protestors were killed, more than a hundred injured, yesterday when what is now called the 'Iraqi police' opened fire apparently to frighten and intimidate the growing throngs wanting to heed the call of Sistani and march to Najaf. More killing of Iraqi protestors by 'Iraqi police' is beginning to be reported this morning.

Journalists are having a devil of a time as well, threatened more by the Americans and their regime than by anyone else it appears (just read the last article below). The Americans had Aljazeera, the most popular Arab satellite TV channel, thrown out of Iraq just before they began their most ferocious military operations. And the U.S. installed, protected, and funded Allawi regime has followed through with continual threats against journalists and unprecedented efforts to prevent video pictures of what the occupation troops are doing from reaching the world.

All this is being orchestrated behind-the-scenes from 'fortress America' - the largest U.S. Embassay and CIA station in the world in the Baghdad 'Green Zone' now commanded by Ambassador John Negroponte. And the top U.S. military commanders are now said to be in Najaf as Sistani arrives; though in the past he has always refused to meet with any American occupation officials.

But at this point no one seems to know just who is really in charge and what is really going on. Sistani's own authority and credibility have already been called into question by his well-timed decision to leave Iraq and go to London for medical treatment. Many now believe this was coordinated with the Americans and the Baghdad regime; and many others who aren't so sure wonder why in the world he went to London when he could have gone to nearby Iran or Lebanon or had doctors in fact come to him if in fact there was some emergency. And as these questions remain hanging this morning's headline on Aljazeera is "U.S. attacks Najaf as UK escorts al-Sistani".

Al-Sistani's convoy is heading to Najaf from Basra

US attacks Najaf as UK escorts al-Sistani

Thursday 26 August 2004 8:03 AM GMT:
Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani, protected by the occupation military, is heading to Najaf to broker an end to the fighting there as US troops continue their fierce attacks on the city.

US tank and helicopter fire pounded the area around the shrine in Najaf on Thursday.

Continuing through the morning, after a battery of overnight attacks, US armoured vehicles took up position in Rassul street, which leads to the southern entrance of the Imam Ali mausoleum.

US snipers were hunkered down on the rooftops of neighbouring houses.

Bullet holes

A dozen bullet holes were visible in the golden dome of the shrine and some of its golden tiles had come loose, said an AFP correspondent, one of three reporters inside the shrine.

Several missiles were fired from the air and tanks were still within 20 metres of the western side of the mosque, Shia leader al-Sadr's headquarters since his spring uprising against US-led occupation troops.

US troops have covered all
entrances to Imam Ali shrine

All entrances to the mosque were covered by elite US marksmen and it was impossible to enter or leave the building, as the heavy thud of al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army mortar fire resounded from inside the shrine.

Mosque loudspeakers urged the fighters to jihad as sanitary conditions deteriorated in the mosque, effectively cut off by US troops since early Wednesday.

Al-Sistani convoy

Meanwhile, al-Sistani's convoy, swollen by thousands of faithful and accompanied by dozens of police and national guard patrol vehicles, was moving at no more than 20 km an hour on the 400 km journey north from Basra.

Two British occupation military helicopters hovered above al-Sistani's motorcade as it crawled along.

Speaking to Aljazeera, al-Sistani spokesman Hamid al-Khafaf said the cleric had called on those heading for Najaf to wait at the gates and not enter the city until the spiritual leader arrived.

Al-Sistani's convoy is moving
at a slow pace

They should wait for further instructions from al-Sistani's office, al-Khafaf said, adding that it was necessary to abide by the cleric's guidance.

Packed into hundreds of cars, pick-up trucks and buses, Shia faithful of all ages, including Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr supporters, waved green banners and pictures of al-Sistani, straddling all four lanes of the road.

At Tell al-Lahm, 100 km north of Basra, 4,000 residents, including tribal leaders, lined both sides of the road to welcome the convoy, which stopped for around 10 minutes.

After talks with government ministers in Basra late on Wednesday, an al-Sistani aide said the Ayat Allah wanted occupation troops to leave Najaf, Iraqi police to take responsibility for security and the government to pay compensation to those who have suffered in the fighting.

Al-Sistani arrived in Iraq via the Kuwaiti border on Wednesday after a three-week spell in London , where he travelled for medical treatment for a heart problem just as the Najaf fighting erupted.


Attack on Iraq mosque 'kills 25'

People wounded in the Kufa attack receive medical treatment
Kufa is a stronghold of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr
At least 25 people have been killed and dozens injured in a suspected mortar attack on a mosque near the troubled city of Najaf, say hospital officials.

The compound of the mosque in Kufa was packed with people about to go to Najaf where Iraq's top Shia cleric is headed to try to end the conflict there.

Later, gunmen opened fired on marchers going from Kufa to Najaf, reportedly killing at least three.

It is not known who is behind either of the attacks.

Accompanied by thousands of his supporters, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is going to Najaf to try to end the stand-off involving Shia fighters led by a radical cleric, Moqtada Sadr.

The rebels have been battling US-led forces for three weeks.

Click below for Digital Globe satellite image of Kufa

The ayatollah, who returned to Iraq on Wednesday after medical treatment in the UK, is expected to announce an initiative to resolve the crisis as Moqtada Sadr's men are holed up in the compound of the Imam Ali mosque, Shia Islam's holiest shrine.

"I have come for the sake of Najaf and I will stay in Najaf until the crisis ends," Ayatollah Sistani said on Wednesday.

An aide travelling with the ayatollah told Reuters news agency he was continuing to make for Najaf despite the trouble in Kufa.

Ayatollah Sistani was instrumental in brokering an earlier ceasefire between Mr Sadr's fighters and US-led forces in the city.

Angry crowds

Hussam al-Husseini, an aide to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, told the Associated Press news agency that one mortar shell hit the mosque itself in Kufa, and two others landed near the gates of the compound.

This is a criminal act. We just wanted to launch a peaceful demonstration
Witness Hani Hashem

He said another mosque in the city had also been hit by mortar rounds.

It is not clear who might have been responsible for the attack.

US-led forces said they have not carried out any operations in Kufa for 24 hours, CNN television reported.

TV pictures showed dozens of wounded men lying on the ground amid pools of blood or being ferried to Kufa's hospital.

Crowds of angry people are reported to have built up around the gates of the hospital where casualties were taken.

Ayatollah Sistani pictured after crossing back into Iraq on Wednesday 25 August 2004
Ayatollah Sistani has brokered peace in Najaf before
"We were gathering outside and inside the mosque preparing to head to Najaf when two mortar shells landed, one inside the mosque and the other on the main gate," said one man who was taking an injured friend to the hospital.

"This is a criminal act. We just wanted to launch a peaceful demonstration," Hani Hashem said.

In the other incident, witnesses said a crowd of 2,000-3,000 were forced back from a road-block on the main route to Najaf by heavy gunfire over their heads.

Peace plan

The ayatollah set out from the southern city of Basra early on Thursday to make the journey of 400km (250 miles) to Najaf in a convoy of cars and buses packed with Shia Muslim faithful.

The crowds heading to Najaf include Shia who seek the peaceful solution preferred by their spiritual leader Ayatollah Sistani, as well as supporters of Moqtada Sadr.

Kufa mosque [archive picture]
The Kufa mosque was regularly used by Moqtada Sadr

The governor of Najaf declared a 24-hour ceasefire from when the ayatollah arrives to allow time for a deal with the militants to be reached.

Aides said the ayatollah's proposals included weapons-free zones in both Najaf and Kufa - a stronghold of Moqtada Sadr - and the replacement of foreign troops by Iraqi police.

Helicopters hovered above the stream of vehicles headed to Najaf, while armed guards in sports utility vehicles protected the ayatollah.

Najaf under intense shelling barrage

Thousands of Shia supporters greeted al-Sistani's return

As US AC-130s and artillery units continued their sixth day of bombing al-Mahdi Army positions in Najaf, Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani has issued a call for Iraqis to march to the city to "save it from destruction".

Five explosions were heard early on Thursday morning as artillery fire rained down on al-Mahdi Army holdouts in Najaf.

The artillery fire was followed by what residents said was a warplane attack.

A few hours earlier, two deafening explosions sounded across Najaf late on Wednesday evening, as US warplanes bombed the historic heart of Najaf, witnesses said.

Thick black smoke spewed out into the night sky not far from the revered Imam Ali mausoleum, where supporters of cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr have been trapped by US occupation forces, an AFP correspondent said.

Witnesses said they saw planes drop two bombs at around 23:15 (19:15 GMT).

An al-Sadr spokesman based in Nasiriya said that all al-Mahdi Army operations in southern Iraq had been suspended as of Wednesday night.

Aws al-Khafaji is also reported to have told AFP that the militia have lost control of major sections of Najaf.

An Iraqi security source also said Iraqi police had arrested al-Sadr aide Ali al-Sumaisim and four office staff near the Thawrat-al-Ishrin square in Najaf.

Al-Sistani's march

Iranian-born al-Sistani arrived in the southern city of Basra early on Wednesday and called on the march to begin on Thursday.

He is hoping to end the fighting between US forces and followers of his political foe, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, by breaking up the two sides.

"The Americans have been surrounding the shrine for days and

Sadr's followers stayed barricaded and determined. This march is the only way for both sides to save face," said independent

Shia cleric Muhammad Bahr al-Uloum.

"The march will make history. It could be decisive in keeping Iraq united. We can talk politics later," said Uloum,

who acknowledges Sistani, 73, as the highest living authority in Shia Islam.

Sistani arrived in the southern city
of Basra on Wednesday

Iranian-born Sistani, who had not left Najaf for years, departed the city two weeks ago to undergo surgery in London, just as fighting flared between al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army and US occupation forces.

Iraqi sources have criticised the ailing Ayat Allah for not urging action on Najaf sooner.

"The Ayat Allah is trying to set things right. The popular forces in Iraq have been astonished by his silence over the

American use of brute force, although we understand that as a traditional religious elder he prefers subtlety," said Ali al-Lami, a Shia politician.

Demonstrators killed

Earlier on Wednesday, Aljazeera reported that 16 men were killed and 102 others wounded during a peaceful demonstration heading towards Najaf.

Video footage from Associated Press Television News showed demonstrators wounded during a few minutes of heavy gunfire.

The marchers chanted slogans in support of al-Sadr and carried pictures of the cleric as well as pictures of al-Sistani.

<> Witnesses said the gunfire appeared to come from an Iraqi National Guard post, which sat behind concrete blast walls along the demonstration route.
Wednesday 25 August 2004 7:55 PM GMT

Iraqi police seize journalists in Najaf

No more reports from a burning Najaf by Gulf-based media

(AFP - 25 August) Iraqi policemen rounded up dozens of journalists at gunpoint in a Najaf hotel and took them to police headquarters before later releasing them.

Firing their guns in the air, the dozen odd policemen, some masked, stormed into the rooms of journalists in the Najaf Sea hotel and forced them into vans and a truck.

An AFP correspondent, who was also forced into a van, said the police pushed and pulled many reporters at gunpoint.

After a two-minute drive from the hotel, where journalists from across the world are based while covering the battle between al-Mahdi Army militiamen and US occupation forces city, the reporters were taken to the office of the police chief.

"You people are not under arrest," Najaf police chief Ghalib al-Jezari told them.

"You are brought here because I want to tell you that you never publish the truth. I speak the truth, but you never broadcast what we are."

The reporters, packed into the office, with some sitting on the floor in front of the police chief, protested at their detention.

"You have kidnapped us at gunpoint," said one reporter.

The police chief complained that reporters have been misreporting the proposed visit to Najaf by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the revered Iraqi Shiite Muslim leader.

Arab media detained

Iraqi police also arrested five members of a Dubai-based television news crew after they reported that US planes had fired missiles within metres of the Imam Ali mausoleum.

An Al-Arabiya satellite news bulletin on Wednesday evening said that although no official reason had been given, their detention came within minutes of a 17:00 GMT broadcast with live coverage of seriously fierce fighting in Najaf.

Damage to the Imam Ali complex, already the scene of major resistance to US occupation forces, would almost certainly exacerbate the conflict.

Iraqi security officials arrested the TV crew at their hotel in Najaf, taking five members into custody - including Iraq correspondent Diyar al-Omari.

Iran expects release

The arrests came as Iran's IRNA new agency announced it hopes to see two or three of its journalists released after their detention in Iraq on 9 August.

A source close to Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was quoted as saying two of the three IRNA journalists would be released, but did not say which ones.

IRNA's Baghdad bureau chief Mustafa Darban, and colleagues Muhammad Khafaji and Muhsin Madani went initially feared kidnapped before Tehran announced all three had been arrested by Iraqi police.
Wednesday 25 August 2004 7:37 PM GMT

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