Offensive Begins But Holy Sites Not Targeted, Officials Say
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 12, 2004 Multinational and Iraqi forces launched an offensive against outlaw militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the Iraqi cities of Kufa and Najaf today.
A Multinational Force Iraq spokesman emphasized that holy shrines are being safeguarded during the "clearing operations."
In a written statement, Army Brig. Gen. Erv Lessel, the multinational force's deputy operations director, said the operations include neither the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf nor the Kufa Mosque.
"Today's operations are designed to restrict freedom of movement of Sadr forces in Kufa and Najaf and to further isolate them in these mosques, which they use as a base of operations," he said. "Militia use of these shrines as protective shields could lead to damage of these sacred sites."
He added that the combined Iraqi and multinational security forces are operating in strict compliance with guidance from Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to safeguard and prevent possible harm to these holy shrines as well as to protect the citizens and future of Iraq.
Officials also said reports of thousands of refugees fleeing the city are not true. While some people have left the city, there is no mass exodus, they said.
The main Iraqi police station in Najaf came under mortar fire this morning, according to a Multinational Force Iraq news release. Sadr's militia fired 25 mortar rounds from within the walls of the Imam Ali Mosque. The same militia has engaged the Iraqi police in three major firefights in the center of Najaf, officials said, adding that the police repelled each attack.
Members of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Force are working with the police to protect civilians targeted by the militia, and officials there emphasized that the shrine is not a target, the release said.