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Cleric's Militia Has No Respect for Holy Sites, General Says

By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 14, 2004 – While coalition forces in Iraq are respecting holy sites in their operations in Najaf, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia uses shrines as shields, a coalition military spokesman said today in Baghdad.

At a news conference, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy operations director for Combined Joint Task Force 7, vehemently denied that coalition forces attacked one of the holiest places in the Shiia faith.

"It is important to understand that we have not attacked the Shrine of Imam Ali," Kimmitt told reporters. "We continue to respect the Shrine of Imam Ali. We continue to respect the red lines that have been established by the religious clerics. And it is sad that there have been attempts by groups to use that red line to hide behind that to kill Iraqi police and to kill coalition forces."

Terrorist forces have been firing at Iraqi police stations from a cemetery, he said, and coalition forces have tried to stop those attacks.

"It is clear what is going on," Kimmitt said. "Muqtada's militia is attempting to use those red lines and use those religious shrines much like human shields. He is hiding behind those, fully understanding that we will treat it with respect and they will not treat it with respect."

But coalition soldiers will not stand by and allow terrorists to kill Iraqi police by using a holy site as a place to launch attacks, he added.

Kimmitt referred reporters' questions about violence in Najaf to the people he said are responsible for it. "I would ask you to go back to Muqtada's militia and say, 'Why are you using this shrine to store weapons? Why are you using the shrine as a place to set up firing positions? Why are you using the shrine as a location to shoot mortar rounds at coalition forces and Iraqi forces that are inside legitimate Iraqi police stations? What gives you the right to violate the Shiia religion? What gives you the right to use this to protect yourself and your troops? If you want to fight the coalition forces, go outside the city of Najaf. Do not hold it hostage, do not hold the Shiia religion hostage, and do not allow the sites to be held hostage to your seditious ways.'"

Kimmitt listed various engagements with Sadr's militia in Najaf today.

At 8:40 a.m., coalition forces reported four mortar rounds impacting near the Najaf main Iraqi police station. Two rounds hit inside the walls of the compound, and two hit just outside the walls. At about the same time, two tanks came under fire from three rocket-propelled grenades while passing eastbound through a traffic circle. The tanks reported small-arms and RPG fire coming from the north, the west and the east. Elements at the main Iraqi police station also reported taking a large volume of small-arms and RPG fire.

Coalition forces reported extensive RPG and small-arms from an amusement park at about 10:30 a.m. With tanks providing supporting fire, a scout platoon cleared buildings and the park. At 11:30, units at the main Iraqi police station reported continuing small-arms, RPG and mortar fire. Two tanks from the main station moved toward that location and encountered a large volume of small-arms and RPG fire.

Helicopter crews visually confirmed at 11:30 a.m. that an enemy 60 mm mortar position and an RPG team were in a cemetery, but were unable to engage the enemy because the cemetery is near the Ali shrine. Ground troops were called, and they destroyed the mortar teams at 1:10 p.m.

Muqtada's militia has spent most of its existence attacking legitimate Iraqi institutions and needs to "go away," Kimmitt said. "Look what they're attacking," he told reporters. "They're attacking police stations; they're attacking media stations; they're attacking government buildings, governors' buildings.

"They are trying to achieve through the barrel of a gun what should be achieved in this country through the ballot box," the general continued. "They're attempting what can only be called seditious behavior as they attempt to take over this nation."

The general said the coalition's goal is to bring Sadr to Iraqi justice without giving any kind of strategic benefit to him or his followers. "Clearly, we have a strong desire and an intention and an objective to see him face an Iraqi judge," Kimmitt said. "We also have a strong desire not to allow (him) to become either a martyr or a victim."

Kimmitt noted that Sadr is under indictment by Iraqi officials for his connection to the murder of a rival cleric. "We are attempting to facilitate that process," he added.

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