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Najaf Standoff Continues As Militants Still Hold Shrine

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2004 – As the standoff in Najaf continues between Iraqi, U.S. and coalition troops and forces under the command of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's top Shiite holy man apparently is ready to use his prestige to resolve the situation, according to news reports.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Despite entreaties from the Iraqi interim government, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia continues to man defenses in and around the shrine. U.S. Central Command released aerial photos taken Aug. 23 that show militia mortar positions on the eastern sidewalk of the Imam Ali Shrine. Defense Department photo
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Sadr's followers have been holed up in and around Najaf's Imam Ali Shrine since area fighting renewed Aug. 5. The interim Iraqi government repeatedly has directed Sadr to disband his militia and leave the shrine, to no effect so far. Sadr and his aides have offered to negotiate to give up the shrine to Shiite leaders, but nothing has yet come from the talks.

Now back in Iraq from a trip to England for medical treatment Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, 73, reportedly is preparing to take control of the shrine and restore peace in Najaf, as part of an earlier deal brokered between his people and Sadr's.

In recent days, interim Iraqi government officials have threatened to use Iraqi troops to eject Sadr and his followers from the shrine. Meanwhile, Iraqi, U.S. and coalition forces in the Najaf area have been tightening the cordon around the shrine, while withstanding attacks by Sadr's followers.

Despite entreaties from the Iraqi interim government, Sadr's militia continues to man defenses in and around the shrine. U.S. Central Command officials released aerial photos taken Aug. 23 that show militia mortar positions on the eastern sidewalk of the Imam Ali Shrine.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted there's still a need for U.S. forces in Iraq, pointing to the situation in Najaf and other areas of the country during an Aug. 23 troop visit to Fort Bliss, Texas.

The Najaf situation has become a confusing seesaw for military members, diplomats and journalists alike, because Sadr "is saying one thing one minute, another thing another minute," Rumsfeld said. Meanwhile, U.S. and coalition forces, he pointed out, will continue to put pressure on Sadr's militia.

The bottom line, Rumsfeld noted, is that the interim Iraqi government recognizes "that it cannot have a chunk of its country run by militias and terrorists."

Currently, about 100,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained and equipped to take over the country's security needs, he said, with another 100,000 slated for similar training.

After Iraqi security forces have demonstrated that they can stand on their own, Rumsfeld explained, then American forces would leave Iraq. "Our task is to get them on a path (so) that they can maintain security in that country," he said.

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Biographies:
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld

Related Sites:
U.S. Central Command
Multinational Force Iraq

Related Articles:
Rumsfeld Praises Servicemembers at Fort Bliss



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