The Sunday Times: THE mayor of Najaf, scene of some of the most bitter fighting in Iraq since the official end of the war last year, yesterday accused Iran of encouraging the violence by sending weapons and men to confront American forces in the shadow of the holy city’s shrines. The Sunday Times

Qazem Jabbar, Najaf, and Hala Jaber

THE mayor of Najaf, scene of some of the most bitter fighting in Iraq since the official end of the war last year, yesterday accused Iran of encouraging the violence by sending weapons and men to confront American forces in the shadow of the holy city’s shrines.

Adnan al-Zurfi said that Iranian fighters had been captured during three days of running battles and that hundreds of local militiamen had been armed by Iran.

If confirmed, the development will reflect American fears that Iran is meddling in its neighbour’s affairs with the covert aim of setting up a radical Shi’ite state.

Mohammad Khatami, the Iranian president, said in Tehran yesterday that fighting around Najaf’s shrines, including the mausoleum of Imam Ali, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad, was “intolerable”.

“We simply will not accept the holy sites coming under attack for any reason,” he said. “This is aggression against the convictions, beliefs and emotions of not only Shi’ites but all Muslims.”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, also condemned the Americans. “The United States has reached a dead end in Iraq, like a trapped wolf, and it is trying to frighten people by roaring and clawing,” he told a meeting of Islamic clerics. “But the people of Iraq will not allow the United States to swallow their country.”

The clashes erupted last week after Moqtada al-Sadr, the renegade Shi’ite cleric who has defied all attempts to arrest him, called on his al-Mahdi army to stage a national uprising against American and coalition forces, ending a two-month truce.

American forces said they had killed 300 fighters. The militia claimed to have lost only 18 men, with 40 wounded.

During a brief lull in the battle, al-Zurfi threatened a renewed all-out offensive unless the militiamen left the city by last night. He also said his men were searching for a group of 80 Iranian fighters who had been spotted in a cemetery.

“If they do not leave Najaf then we shall have to go for the military option,” he said. “There is Iranian support to al-Sadr’s group and this is no secret. We have information and evidence that they are supplying the Mahdi army with weapons and have found such weapons in their possession.”

The unrest in Najaf reverberated elsewhere, with fighting reported in the Sadr City area of Baghdad, where 19 al-Sadr supporters were said to have died.

Earlier, British troops were engaged in skirmishes with Shi’ite gunmen in the southern city of Basra and Romanian soldiers were attacked in Nasiriya. As Najaf inhabitants huddled in shell-scarred homes without water or electricity, al-Sadr’s aides accused American troops of damaging a minaret at the mausoleum of Imam Ali and called on local Muslims to “take up arms to defend your holy places”.

Aided by Iraqi National Guardsmen, US forces began reinforcing positions yesterday around Najaf’s Valley of Peace cemetery, which appeared to have been turned into a possible launching point for an assault on the insurgents.

The Iraqi government says it is determined to crush all militias but some Shi’ites were believed to be trying to restore a ceasefire with the Americans.

The latest battles came as Grand Ayatollah Ali-Husseini al Sistani, 73, the most powerful Shi’ite cleric in Iraq, arrived in Britain for medical care after what is believed to be a heart problem. His calming influence was evidently badly missed.

Two US marines died in Najaf on Friday. A third was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in Baghdad.

Ibrahim al-Jafari, the Iraqi vice-president, said the orders for offensive action against militants should have come from the Iraqi government. “I think that killing Iraqi citizens is not a civilised way of building the new Iraq, which is based on protecting people and promoting dialogue, not bullets,” he said.

Ayad Allawi, the prime minister, signed a 30-day amnesty pardoning Iraqis guilty of minor crimes in another attempt to quell the insurgency.

• Iraq’s interim government ordered the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network to close its Baghdad office for one month yesterday. It accused the station of encouraging kidnappings through its coverage.

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