NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 12 -- Intense fighting was underway in this city revered by Shiite Muslims and the adjacent town of Kufa Thursday as U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major offensive designed to crush the insurgent militia of cleric Moqtada Sadr.
During the operation, about 50 U.S. Marines and accompanying Iraqi troops stormed Sadr's house in Najaf and seized it. The rebellious cleric apparently was not found. No shots were heard as troops entered the house and an adjoining school, but minutes later Iraqi police rushed from the house to a nearby hospital, apparently with injured persons.
An American soldier stands guard next to detained Iraqi men as the sound of heavy gun battles resonated throughout Najaf, Thursday.
(Hadi Mizban - AP Photo)
The Najaf offensive began before dawn Thursday and by late in the day, the interim government's interior minister, Falah Naqib, declared at a Baghdad news conference that about 1,200 individuals and "large amounts of weapons" had been captured without encroaching on the city's shrine of Imam Ali, which is sacred to Shiite Muslims, and has been used as a refuge by the militia.
He said the offensive would continue until Sadr's militia is forced out of its positions in and around the shrine and the vast adjoining Shiite cemetery.
There were no figures available on casualties.
Iraqi and U.S. officials also reported fighting in the Sadr City section of Baghdad, a stronghold of Sadr's Mahdi Army and in the city of Kut, where there were reports of more than 70 Iraqi deaths.
The Mahdi Army has used Najaf, which is about a hundred miles south of Baghdad, as a stronghold since launching a rebellion last April against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. U.S. officials have been reluctant to move against the city in force because of concern about a possible Shiite backlash.
But a week of fierce fighting between U.S. troops and the Mahdi Army in seven cities appears to have changed the thinking of U.S. officials and Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
At the news conference in Baghdad, Naqib and Defense Minister Hazim Shalan sought to quell growing criticism of the U.S. and Iraqi military action against the Mahdi Army, casting the joint operation as the last recourse against a foe that threatens national stability.
"We had no other solution," said Naqib, noting that efforts to broker a lasting peace deal with Sadr and involve his followers in the interim government had failed. "Previously, we had tried to solve all out problems politically and peacefully. What is happening at this stage is not to the benefit of anyone."
Seeking to build support among a skeptical population for the offensive, Naqib and Shalan played a 20-second videotape shot from a U.S. military helicopter that they said showed Mahdi Army militiamen firing mortars from within the Imam Ali shrine. The slightly blurry video depicted three men, one of whom appeared to run to and from a launching device, in a courtyard surrounded by large walls. "All of this violates the holiness of the shrines," Shalan said.
Naqib and Shalan disputed the Mahdi Army's claim that they are trying to evict U.S. forces from Iraq. "This doesn't fall under the category of resistance to the occupation," Naqib said. "It is against the Iraqi people. . . . They are trying to derail the rebuilding of Iraq, trying to prevent Iraqis from carrying out their daily life."
They insisted that Iraqi forces were taking the lead role in the military operations and would be the ones to enter the shrine, if necessary. They and a senior U.S. military official said U.S. forces had no plans to enter the holy site.
"The Iraqi police and the Iraqi armed forces will be the forces to liberate the shrine," Naqib said. Shalaan said military operations will continue "until the militias evacuate the holy shrine."