From the 'The Guardian', April 28, 2004
"Huge US attack to crush Iraq rebels
Luke Harding from Najaf on a defining moment in the Iraq conflict.
It was easy to spot the site that bore the brunt of American firepower.
The scattered bricks, the gaping hole in the wall, the observation tower perforated by bullets - fired by the American tank that rolled insouciantly down the avenue of date palms and eucalyptus trees.
And the fighters sweeping up the debris, untroubled by their battle with the world's most powerful army, were even claiming victory despite heavy losses.
This was the scene yesterday at the checkpoint leading into Kufa, the town next to the Shia holy city of Najaf, after an intense battle on Monday night that signalled renewed US resolve to take on its foes in Iraq.
Last night it was the turn of Falluja, centre of Sunni resistance to the coalition, as US aircraft and artillery pounded targets in the heaviest assaults in the city since a fragile truce took hold.
Explosions and showers of sparks lit up the sky as US firepower homed in on what the military said was a hard core of resistance in the city's Golan district.
Najaf and Falluja are presenting the Bush administration with big problems with little more than two months to go before sovereignty is to be transferred to Iraqis: by resorting to force to crush the rebellions, the military risks generating further alienation and opposition.
"We were determined to stop them," said Abu Mathan, a member of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia, as he waved traffic over Kufa's bridge and across the Euphrates river.
He said the Americans tried to enter Najaf on Monday evening: "We attacked them with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. They bombed us with jet fighters. We put up fierce resistance. At 2am they left."
The encounter - in which the US military says it killed 64 members of Mr Sadr's militia - marks a defining moment in the war in Iraq.
Until now, the US has avoided launching an all-out offensive against Najaf for fear of antagonising Iraqi Shias. In recent weeks, however, US officials in Baghdad have been repeatedly threatening to kill or capture Mr Sadr, who has led an uprising against the US occupation.
On Monday US troops killed dozens of his supporters instead. The move is likely to inflame Shia opinion against America, making enemies of the people who initially welcomed the invasion because it rid them of Saddam Hussein.
Yet if there is any strategic thinking on the US side about how to deal with the Najaf standoff, it was hard to find it there yesterday.
The Guardian, which was given rare access into the territory defended by Mr Sadr's army, found his fighters digging in for battle along Kufa's dusty main road. In front of the library, two men wearing red kaffir headdresses chatted next to a machine gun. Trenches had been dug outside Kufa's gold-domed mosque.
The popular sentiment was not hard to fathom - alongside portraits of Mr Sadr were slogans that read: "Yes to the armed resistance" and "Death to America".
The cleric's young and largely uneducated followers have been dubbed the Mahdi army. They are not an army - more of a loose-knit group of frustrated Shia Iraqis with Kalashnikovs. As one volunteer, Syad Mustafa, said: "We don't have any bases. We don't have any tanks. We don't have any jets."
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Meanwhile, over a large wall and across a scruffy field, is the base used by Spanish troops, who have now withdrawn from their positions. It is here that the British soldiers could be deployed.
Mr Sadr's militia had a warning for them.
"The Americans are the terrorists. They keep on killing Iraqi women and children," said fighter Said Husseini outside Kufa's second mosque, clutching a rocket launcher and two green grenades. "We would urge European countries to pull their sons out of Iraq. Otherwise they'll go home in body bags."
These days, Mr Sadr, a 30-year-old cleric whose father and uncle were both killed by Saddam, is a hard man to find. But his spokesman, Qais al-Kha'zali, told the Guardian that negotiations with the coalition to end the standoff in Najaf had broken down.
"The Americans attacked us yesterday in Kufa using jet fighters," he complained. "They are agitating the situation. Mr Sadr demands that the occupation should end all over Iraq. The Americans hate him because he refuses to bargain with them."
Mr Kha'zali said it was unreasonable for the coalition to demand the cleric disband his Mahdi militia without making concessions of its own.
"They are demanding something and offering nothing," he insisted. Mr Sadr had also not murdered a rival cleric, he said, something the coalition accuses him of.
He wanted a peaceful solution but was not optimistic: "The US behaves with stubbornness and arrogance."
The Shia cleric's crowded three-storey office is directly opposite Najaf's Imam Ali mosque, one of the most famous shrines in the Muslim world. It is the proximity of the building that has probably spared Mr Sadr from being hit by an American missile - and the fact that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected Shia figure, lives next door.
Yesterday dozens of Mr Sadr's supporters waited in the narrow alley where he lives. Others sat cross-legged inside his office. The shop outside sells posters of the bearded cleric, with copies of al-Mujahid, Iraq's resistance newspaper.
Nobody gets in without being searched and the guards carry hand grenades. Not everyone in Najaf, though, supports the cleric's decision to seek violent confrontation with the US.
"There are no pilgrims any more. Since last month business has been terrible," one shopkeeper, Mohammed al-Jazaeri, said.
On Sunday evening, the US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, accused the Mahdi army of stockpiling weapons in mosques and schools.
A Sadr official was at pains to disprove the claim.
At the Mawza school the headmaster, dressed in flowing black robes and a turban, showed us round and pointed to the students sitting around a fountain in an exquisitely tiled open courtyard.
The basement of the school revealed some old books, a young scholar from Indian Kashmir and a cockroach.
"Our only weapon is the Koran," said the headmaster, who declined to be named.
Down the road, though, several Mahdi fighters manning a checkpoint were quite happy to show off their battered Kalashnikovs, stockpiled in a small tent. In an open-air kitchen, other armed volunteers were eating a chicken lunch. "Thirteen people from our mosque were killed yesterday," fighter Abu Nathan, said.
"One of our dead was a volunteer from Iran. The problem is that there are some traitors here who give our positions away to the Americans.
"The other problem is that coalition forces control the only hospital in Kufa. We've asked them to leave but they refuse.
"The Americans came here as liberators but now it has turned into occupation.
"We are not afraid. We are going to fight them."
Back at Kufa, a busload of Indian pilgrims alighted yesterday afternoon outside the main mosque, seemingly oblivious to the fact they had just wandered into a war zone.
Wearing white robes, they queued patiently in the afternoon sunshine. Was it dangerous coming to Kufa just after a six-hour gun battle?
Murtaza Ahmed, 21, a student from Mumbai, had an answer: "Life and death are in the hands of God."