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American troops battle insurgents at cemetery

NAJAF, Iraq – In a high-stakes move, U.S. troops confronted fighters loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr in this holy city on Friday, turning its sprawling cemetery, sacred to the world’s Shiite Muslims, into a battlefield.

Tanks roared among the tombs, backed by helicopters bristling with guns, in an effort to blast positions held by Sadr’s Mahdi Army, who were using the burial grounds to launch attacks on American troops.

Gunfire ricocheted through the city and exploding mortars rocked several neighborhoods, destroying part of two homes near the residence of one of the city’s eminent ayatollahs, Abdul Aziz Hakkim. An aide to the most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, urged all armed forces to leave the holy city, according to Arab satellite television channels.

During the fighting, the shrine holy to Imam Ali, one of the founders of the Shiite sect, was damaged, according to wire service reports. Four holes, each about 12 inches long and 8 inches wide, were visible on the gold dome of the mosque. They appeared to have been caused by machine gun fire.

A coalition spokesman adamantly denied that they were caused by American fire. “We have not attacked the shrine of Imam Ali. We continue to respect the Shrine of Imam Ali,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, military spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.

“If there’s a hole in the shrine, go ask Muqtada who put that hole in the shrine. … I would put money on Muqtada’s forces having caused it,” he said.

During their nearly three-week standoff with Sadr’s militia, U.S. troops have been careful to avoid damage to shrines in Najaf and other holy cities for fear of enraging Iraq’s Shiite majority. In other areas of the country such as the so-called Sunni Triangle outside Baghdad, U.S. forces have attacked mosques when insurgents have used them as fighting positions.

The U.S.-led forces in Southern Iraq want to force the dissolution of the Mahdi Army and to see Sadr, who spoke at a mosque in nearby Kufa on Friday, handed over to an Iraqi judge for investigation in the deadly stabbing of a rival cleric last year.

Late Friday, it remained unclear how many casualties had been suffered by Sadr’s fighters or by U.S. troops. But at dusk, ambulance sirens could be heard screaming through the streets carrying the dead and wounded to the hospital.

It was the first time that U.S. soldiers advanced so deeply into this holy city, apparently having concluded that trying to take on the rebels was worth the risk of alienating mainstream Shiites. Even Shiites who dislike Sadr are sensitive about non-Muslims approaching the sacred shrines.

Over the past two days, U.S. soldiers had taken a similar tack near the two holy shrines in Karbala, also sacred to Iraq’s Shiites. Gun battles continued there Friday but were less intense, according to local residents.

Reaction to the intrusion on holy areas received a mixed response from Iraq’s Shiites, with opinions dividing roughly along political lines. Those in neighborhoods that support Sadr condemned the American activities, while in other Shiite areas there was widespread and often unequivocal support for the American action.

A majority of Najaf natives appear to resent how Sadr has used the holy city as a shield, brought the tourist trade to a standstill and allowed his Mahdi army to loot local government offices.

However, a recent Iraqi national public opinion poll has shown a dramatic rise in support for Sadr in recent months. Three months ago, only 2 percent to 3 percent of Iraqis said they supported or strongly supported him. But after his militia launched its confrontations with U.S. forces, more than 50 percent of those polled either somewhat support or strongly support him.

The armed confrontations in Najaf started three days ago, when Sadr followers successfully took control of the police headquarters long enough to steal cars and equipment. They were ejected but tried again on Thursday and were stopped by American troops who came into the city. On Friday, Sadr militiamen tried yet again to take over the city’s main police station. The fighting continued late into the night.