-- U.S. Marines and soldiers prepared on Wednesday for what was expected to be a decisive battle for the holiest city in Iraq, but as darkness fell the sense of imminence receded abruptly. An armored column idling at the main gate turned back, and commanders said preparations for the offensive were being extended.
The American-led force may have been awaiting final approval from Iraq's political leader for a combat operation that top Marine commanders said would clear Shiite Muslim militia fighters from the city of 600,000. Since occupation authorities transferred political power to an interim Iraqi government at the end of June, major military operations must be approved by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
[Early Thursday, the sound of heavy gun battles resonated throughout the city, the Associated Press reported. It wasn't clear whether the stepped-up fighting signaled the beginning of a major offensive.]
Military planners have been vexed by intelligence reports that the militiamen, who have fought U.S. and Iraqi security forces here for a week, had rigged explosives in the shrine of Imam Ali, the most sacred site in the Shiite branch of Islam. The reports indicated that the insurgents, who have been using the shrine as a refuge and staging area, would wait until advancing U.S. forces drew near, then detonate the charges and blame the resulting destruction on the Americans.
Military officials said the reports had not been confirmed. "The fear is that the intelligence might not be right in fact, but in effect -- that he has something catastrophic planned for the mosque that he will blame on the U.S.," one commander said, referring to Moqtada Sadr, the radical cleric who leads the loosely formed Mahdi Army militia.
The sensitivity of any U.S. military action here was underscored by a warning from the supreme leader of neighboring Iran, who called American operations in Najaf "one of the darkest crimes of humanity."
"The United States is slaughtering the people of one of the holiest Islamic cities, and the Muslim world and the Iraqi nation will not stand by," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an address broadcast on Iranian state television, according to the official government news agency. With its overwhelmingly Shiite population and theocratic government, Iran regards itself as the leader of the Shiite world.
"These crimes are a dark blemish which will never be wiped from the face of America. They commit these crimes and shamelessly talk of democracy," Khamenei said. "Shame has no place in their vocabulary."
As he spoke, Marines and soldiers busied themselves cleaning weapons, refitting equipment and loading ammunition, food and -- vital in the extreme desert heat -- water and ice into the armored vehicles that might soon carry them to a final battle with Sadr's militiamen.
"Iraqi and U.S. forces are making final preparations as we get ready to finish this fight that the . . . militia started," Col. Anthony M. Haslam, commanding officer of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. "The desired end state is one of stability and security, where the citizens of Najaf do not live in fear of violence or kidnappings, and where the city of Najaf can once again return to peace and prosperity."
The statement came one day after U.S. forces circulated through Najaf with loudspeakers urging residents to evacuate the city for their own protection and advising members of the Mahdi Army to lay down their arms. The Marines are backed by three battalions from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division.
The latest crisis began a week ago, when militiamen attacked several of the city's police stations. The Mahdi Army, named for a messianic figure in the Shiite tradition, then began using the Ali shrine and the vast adjoining cemetery as a firebase.
U.S. commanders have made clear that the shrine is off-limits to American forces, who are forbidden to fire heavy munitions in its vicinity. But Iraqi and U.S. officials calculate that Iraqi forces could clear the militiamen from the shrine, and an elite battalion of the Iraqi National Guard has been training with the Marines during the last week.
A Marine statement said the training "will foster an efficient, effective, cohesive team as [the Iraqi National Guard] leads the fight in ridding their city of those who break the rules of law and order."