NAJAF, Iraq – Explosions and gunfire echoed across the holy city of Najaf on Thursday, as the U.S. military and Iraqi forces launched a full-scale assault to crush a weeklong uprising by militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Thousands of U.S. troops were taking part in the offensive, which began with the cordoning off of the revered Imam Ali shrine, its vast cemetery and Najaf’s Old City.
“Major operations to destroy the militia have begun,” said U.S. Marine Maj. David Holahan, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines Regiment.
The assault was expected to be led by Iraqi forces — many of whom have only minimal training — in an effort to ease anger from Iraq’s Shiite majority if the offensive damages the shrine where many insurgents have taken refuge.
The offensive risks inflame Iraq’s Shiite majority — including those who do not support the uprising — if it targets the shrine. The U.S. military said Wednesday it was holding joint exercises with Iraqi national guardsmen in preparation for the planned assault.
Taking the shrine itself was not the objective, Holahan said, “but it might be.”
U.S. commanders say interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi would have to approve any operation at the shrine itself, and operation that involves entering the shrine would likely involve Iraqi national guard troops, not U.S. forces.
On Thursday, a member of Najaf’s city council resigned after an unknown group kidnapped his father, Najaf governor Adnan Zurufi said.
Jawdat Kadhem al-Qureishi’s father was snatched earlier in the week, and kidnappers demanded the councilman resign in return for his release, Zurufi said. It was not immediately clear who the kidnappers were or whether the incident was related to the current fighting.
On Wednesday, Al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric leading the insurgents, exhorted his followers to fight on even if he is killed.
U.S. troops said they were impressed with militants’ tenacity.
“I think they got a reproduction facility down there. I think they’re cloning,” Capt. Patrick McFall said Wednesday. As he spoke, a mortar exploded nearby, sending up plumes of black smoke.
The United States had announced its plan for the offensive Wednesday, and in response, al-Sadr loyalists in the southern city of Basra threatened to blow up the oil pipelines and port infrastructure there. A similar threat Monday caused oil officials to briefly stop pumping from the southern oil wells.
The U.S. military has estimated that hundreds of insurgents have been killed in the Najaf fighting, but the militants dispute the figure. Five U.S. troops have been killed, along with about 20 Iraqi officers.
Elsewhere, two U.S. Marines were killed when a CH-53 helicopter crashed landed in the volatile Anbar province west of Baghdad, the military said Thursday. Three other people were injured in the crash Wednesday night. The military said that no enemy fire was observed at the time.
An Islamic Web site carried a videotape Wednesday that appeared to show militants in Iraq beheading a man they identified as a CIA agent. The authenticity of the videotape could not be verified immediately. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said CIA officials have accounted for all employees and no one is missing.
Al-Sadr’s forces continued to fight coalition forces and Iraqi authorities in other Shiite areas across Iraq.
Overnight clashes between insurgents and British forces in the southern city of Amarah killed 20 people and wounded 50, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Adnan Abdul Rahman. The British reported two minor casualties among their own troops.
In Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraqi police fought off attacks from al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army at the central police station and other government offices. The fighting killed four people and wounded 20, said Dr. Falah al-Bermany.
A roadside bomb exploded near a market in Khan Bani Saad, northeast of Baghdad, killing at least six Iraqis and wounding nine, a hospital official said.
In Fallujah, U.S. jet fighters bombed several houses, killing four people and wounding others, hospital officials said. The U.S. military had no immediate comment, but American forces have often bombed buildings in Fallujah suspected of housing Sunni militants.
Al-Sadr’s fighters have been battling coalition forces since Aug. 5 in a resurgence of a spring uprising that had been dormant for two months following a series of truces.
“I hope that you keep fighting even if you see me detained or martyred,” al-Sadr, who lives in Najaf, said in a statement Wednesday. “I thank the dear fighters all over Iraq for what they have done to set back injustice.”
The top health official in the city, 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.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq’s interim vice president, called on the U.S. troops to withdraw from Najaf.
“Only Iraqi forces should stay in Najaf. These forces should be responsible for security and should save Najaf from this phenomenon of killing,” al-Jaafari told Arab TV network Al-Jazeera from London on Wednesday.
Coalition forces said the government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was intimately involved in their plans. Speaking of the timing for the planned major assault, U.S. Marine Maj. David Holahan said: “Allawi makes the final decision.”
The violence in Najaf has also angered neighboring Iran.
“The American attacks on the most sacred Islamic city will definitely elicit a strong response from the people of Iraq,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted by state-run TV as saying. “They won’t forgive these crimes.”
In other developments:
_ Ahmad Chalabi, a former Iraqi Governing Council member who fell out of favor with the United States, has returned to Iraq to face counterfeiting charges, an official in his political party said. Arrest warrants for Chalabi and his nephew were issued Saturday. The nephew, Salem Chalabi, is wanted for murder.
_ Gunmen killed Ali al-Khalisi, the head of the Diyala province office of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country’s largest Shiite group, said Haitham al-Husseini, a SCIRI spokesman. Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Tawhid and Jihad group claimed responsibility.
_ Bulgaria’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that a body found in the Tigris River last month was that of Ivaylo Kepov, a Bulgarian truck driver taken hostage.