BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi Shiites expressed anger Thursday at a major U.S.-led assault on a rebel militia in the holy city of Najaf, warning the violence could spread to other parts of the country and damage the political process.
Fighters loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been holed up in and around the Imam Ali shrine, which holds the remains of Ali, the most exalted Shia saint and the son-in-law and cousin of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. Damage to the shrine could anger Shiites and Muslims worldwide.
“This will lead to revenge for the holy sites and for those killed,” said Salama al-Khafaji, a former member of the disbanded Governing Council.
The fighting in Najaf, which began a week ago, prompted some residents to leave their homes.
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who left Najaf a week ago to undergo medical treatment in London, expressed “deep sorrow and great worry” and called on all sides to resolve the crisis.
Najaf, home to some of the most senior Shiite clerics and respected ancient seminaries, has a special place in the hearts of Shiites. After Saddam Hussein’s ouster, the city emerged as the spiritual and political hub for Iraq’s Shiite majority.
In an effort to avoid a Shiite backlash, Iraqi and U.S. military officials said any assault near the militants’ refuge in the shrine would be led by Iraqi forces.
The shrine has suffered slight damage in previous clashes, and some Shiites were appalled the violence has brought foreign troops within sight of the holy place.
Sheik Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, a Shiite cleric, said he and others were angry at seeing Najaf under attack, even if they did not support al-Sadr.
“Let’s say Muqtada is the pinnacle of terrorism and extremism, still how can such a holy city with its special status be treated that way?” he said. “No one can accept targeting people in that manner.”
Al-Khafaji, who has taken part in mediation efforts between al-Sadr and the U.S. and Iraqi authorities, said the military operations and the loss of life would harm the image of the Americans and Iraq’s interim government. “This is not in the interest of America,” she said.
In the southern Shiite city of Basra, nearly 5,000 al-Sadr sympathizers took to the streets Thursday, demanding U.S. troops withdraw from Najaf and condemning Prime Minister Iyad Allawi for his perceived support of the Americans.
“Allawi and the governor of Najaf are responsible for this massacre,” said Abed Jassim, a Shiite in Basra. “They provided protection for the Americans to kill the Shiites.”
The fighting comes at a time when Iraq is preparing for a key national conference beginning Sunday, regarded as major step toward democracy.
“We are busy rebuilding Iraq politically,” said Redha Taqi of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite political group. “Now, we are worried that such a deterioration could hinder the political rebuilding.”
Naseer Hussein, who works in Baghdad’s mostly Shiite Kazimiya neighborhood, where a small protest was held Thursday, warned that fighting in Najaf could cause a rift between Iraqis and the government and create divisions among Shiites.
Others blamed al-Sadr’s followers for hiding in the shrine area and subjecting it to U.S. military might.
Sadr’s followers “should leave for their own safety and the city’s peace,” said Sheik Hassan, a Najaf cleric who only gave his first name. “That way the Americans would leave.”
Either way, the civilians and the sacred places should be spared.
“I would sacrifice myself and anything I own for the sake of these holy sites,” al-Khafaji said. “We ask the international community to intervene to stop this human massacre.”