Image: Al-Sadr followers position their weapons.
Hadi Mizban  /  AP
Fighters aligned with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took positions Tuesday in Najaf.
msnbc.com news services
updated 8/11/2004 2:45:44 PM ET 2004-08-11T18:45:44

U.S. troops postponed a planned offensive Wednesday to root out Shiite militiamen they have been battling for a week in the holy city of Najaf as the militants’ leader, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, urged his followers to battle on even if he is killed.

“Preparations to do the offensive are taking longer than initially anticipated,” said Maj. David Holahan, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines Regiment. But “it doesn’t matter now — they know we’re coming.”

Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite Muslim cleric who has so far spurned attempts to engage him in the country’s nascent political process, was not deterred, called on his Mahdi Army in a statement Wednesday to “keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred.”

U.S. jets roared overhead Wednesday as militiamen fired mortar shells at U.S. forces moving into Najaf’s vast cemetery. Iraqi police set up checkpoints that cut Najaf in two as U.S. troops skirmished with Mahdi Army fighters near the Imam Ali Shrine, the city’s holiest site, in the seventh day of the current wave of fighting in the city.

“We keep pushing south, and they just keep coming,” said Capt. Patrick McFall of the 1st Cavalry Division.

Elsewhere, gunbattles between militants and coalition forces in two other southern cities killed 18 people, while a roadside bomb also exploded north of Baghdad, killing at least six Iraqis and wounding nine others.

‘Hit back with an iron fist’
While not identifying al-Sadr by name, a statement from Iraq’s National Security Council condemned the Najaf militiamen, NBC News’ Preston Mendenhall reported from Baghdad.

In its boldest words since the current uprising began, the government said it had “decided to hit back with an iron fist all these desperate criminals [who] are attempting to hinder the bright future of the people of Iraq.”

U.S. and Iraqi security forces were preparing to launch their major assault “to finish this fight that the Muqtada militia started,” said Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

It was unclear whether the assault would involve raiding the Imam Ali Shrine, which would infuriate Iraq’s Shiite majority. The military says that the insurgents are using the golden-domed shrine in the old city as a refuge and that the governor has given U.S. forces permission to raid it.

In recent days, the government has appeared to use a carrot-and-stick approach with al-Sadr. On the one hand, it has refrained from blaming al-Sadr outright for sparking the violence, although his words clearly galvanize the Shiite militiamen.

The new leadership has also offered a 30-day amnesty for fighters who have not committed murder. On the other hand, interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has said there will be “no negotiations.”

Al-Sadr has so far spurned attempts to engage him in the country’s nascent political process.

‘Catastrophe’ for health services
The top health official in Najaf, Falah al-Mahani, said the deteriorating security situation was causing “a real catastrophe” for the health services.

“Ambulances are prevented from reaching the injured people by the clashing parties. Our staff are not able to reach their hospitals. We are paralyzed,” he said, adding that the fighting injured 18 members of his staff.

The fighting has plagued other Shiite communities across Iraq.

In Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraqi police fought off attacks from the Mahdi Army at the town’s central police station and other government offices. The fighting killed four people and wounded 20 others, said Dr. Falah al-Bermany, a local health official.

“We gave orders to our forces to shoot anyone who gets near government buildings,” said Mohammed Ridha, Kut’s governor.

IMAGE: Fighting in Najaf
Hadi Mizban  /  AP
Followers of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr battled U.S. and Iraqi forces Tuesday in Najaf.

Overnight clashes between insurgents and British forces in the southern city of Amarah killed 14 people and injured 42 others, according to the Health Ministry. Local officials said many of those killed and injured were militants.

In the fighting, British forces attacked positions that militants were using to attack patrols and bases with rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, said Maj. Ian Clooney, a spokesman for the British military. The British suffered two minor casualties.

During the day Wednesday, British tanks were patrolling the major roads in Amarah, while Mahdi Army militants walked through the alleys, witnesses said.

Shiite official assassinated
Also Wednesday, gunmen killed the head of a regional office of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, the country’s largest Shiite group.

Ali al-Khalisi, the head of SCIRI in Diyala province, was killed in Mahmoudiya, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, when gunmen drove up to his car and fired at him, said Haitham al-Husseini, a spokesman for SCIRI.

Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Tawhid and Jihad group claimed responsibility for the killing in a statement posted on an Islamic web site.

In Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, groups of three to five Mahdi Army militants attacked a district council hall repeatedly Tuesday with mortar rounds, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades, clashing with U.S. and Iraqi forces, said Capt. Brian O’Malley of the U.S. 1st Brigade Combat Team.

One person was killed and 18 others were wounded in the skirmishes, the Health Ministry said. Other clashes in Baghdad killed seven people and wounded 11 others.

In the southern cities of Nasiriyah, Basra and Samawah, insurgents targeted coalition forces with mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades, causing no injuries, Clooney said.

“The insurgents are using cover and buildings to [launch] indirect attacks rather than open conflict,” he said.

Farther north, U.S. jet fighters bombed the turbulent city of Fallujah on Wednesday, killing four people, wounding four others and damaging several houses, hospital officials said. The U.S. military had no immediate comment, but U.S. forces have persistently fought with Sunni Muslim militants holed up in the city.

Oil production resumes in south
Production resumed at Iraq’s vast southern oil fields after authorities reached an accord with militant Shiites who had threatened to attack the country’s vital export pipelines for crude, an Iraqi oil official told The Associated Press late Tuesday.

Iraq’s South Oil Co. reversed a decision it made Monday to curtail output as a precaution against threatened sabotage by supporters of al-Sadr.

Also Wednesday, Iraqi police defused explosives found in a white gasoline tanker that was parked outside a hotel used mainly by foreigners in a busy shopping district in Baghdad.

The driver’s cabin was stacked with grenades and gasoline containers and rocket-propelled grenades, police and Interior Ministry officials said.

NBC's Preston Mendenhall and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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