Pentagon officials Wednesday accused the Iraqi military of using the resting place of Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law and Shiites’ most revered saint, as a base for its military attacks on coalition forces.
“[W]e are showing so much more respect for the prominent mosque in Najaf — the Ali Mosque, which is one of the most important religious sites for Shi’a Muslims — than the Iraqi forces are. Iraqi troops are holed up in the mosque and firing at coalition forces. Against all international laws of war, the regime’s forces are using and abusing the mosque as a military fortress,” Penatgon spokesperson Victoria Clarke told reporters. “We have not fired back, and we continue to work hard to avoid civilian casualties and protect Iraq’s holy sites.”
In Baghdad, Iraq’s information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, said the U.S. was targeting mosques and other Islamic sites deliberately. He also told reporters the American forces had attacked the mosques after being repulsed from the city.
“After we repelled them to the desert, they hit the mosques. It is obvious they are doing this to destroy these shrines,” Sahaf told a news conference in Baghdad.
Ali’s shrine, in the heart of the city, is considered by many as one of the landmarks of Islamic art, with its silver-covered tomb, highly ornamented walls and golden dome.
The city itself is also the seat of Shiites’ spiritual leaders, or ayatollahs, and the center for academic and theological studies for the Islamic world. For the Shiite, it is the third most holy city in Islam after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The city is so revered that it overlooks the world’s largest cemetery where Shiites hope to be buried.
In neighboring Iran, the largest Iraqi Shia opposition group, the Iranian-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said if the Iraqi troops were firing from the mosque, it should be denounced.
“Saddam’s regime is taking advantage of the holy sites to achieve its evil goals, and this is always to be condemned,” said the spokesman for the SCIRI.
Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said coalition troops had decided not to fire back at the attackers due to the importance of the mosque.
“While we always have the choice of returning fire to respond to any threat that’s out there on the battlefield, we approach all of our decisions on the battlefield with discrimination, with consideration to the outcome of that action,” Brooks said. “At the same time, we’re gonna protect our force.”
Jim Dwyer of the New York Times, an embedded journalist traveling with forces engaged with in Najaf, said he had not witnessed a gun battle at the mosque, but did say Iraqi forces were using other civilian building for military purposes.
“We have been told that the paramilitaries have been using the major graveyard in the town… as a hiding place from which to shoot, but the paramilitaries were largely routed [Wednesday],” Dwyer told the NewsHour.