Fighting continues at holy shrine
A kidnapped journalist thanked the radical cleric for helping to free him.
NAJAF, Iraq (AP) -- Explosions and gunfire shook Najaf today amid fierce battles between U.S. forces and Shiite militants, who remained in control of a revered shrine here as negotiations dragged on for its hand-over to religious authorities.
In the southern city of Nasiriyah, U.S. journalist Micah Garen said after his release from more than a week in captivity that he hoped to stay in Iraq to continue working on a documentary project he'd started about the looting of archaeological sites.
"This experience hasn't made me want to leave at all," Garen said late Sunday in an interview with Associated Press Television News. He also thanked radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for helping free him from his captors.
For over an hour today, militants in the holy city of Najaf fired mortars at U.S. troops, who responded with artillery, residents said.
Late Sunday, U.S. warplanes and helicopters attacked positions in the Old City for the second night, witnesses said. Militant leaders said the Imam Ali Shrine compound's outer walls were damaged in the attacks. The U.S. military said it had fired on sites south of
the shrine, from which militants were shooting, and did not hit the compound wall.
Sunday's clashes in Najaf appeared more intense than in recent days as U.S. forces sealed off the Old City. But Iraqi government officials counseled patience, saying they intended to resolve the crisis without raiding the shrine, one of Shia Islam's holiest sites.
"The government will leave no stone unturned to reach a peaceful settlement," Iraqi National Security adviser Mouaffaq al-Rubaie told The Associated Press. "It has no intention or interest in killing more people or having even the most trivial damage to the shrine. We have a vested interest in a peaceful settlement."
Senior government officials said last week an Iraqi force was preparing to raid the shrine within hours to expel the militants loyal to al-Sadr, but interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi quickly backed off that threat.
Such an operation would anger Shiites across the country and could turn them against the new government as it tries to gain legitimacy and tackle a 16-month-old insurgency.
Also, five U.S. troops died over the weekend. In the Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni insurgency, four U.S. Marines with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed in separate incidents, the military announced Sunday.
One Marine was killed in action Saturday and two others died Saturday of wounds received while conducting "security and stability operations" in the province, the military said. Another Marine was killed Saturday when his Humvee flipped after running into a tank, the military said.
A roadside bomb attack Sunday targeting a U.S. military convoy outside the northern city of Mosul killed one U.S. soldier assigned to Task Force Olympia and wounded another, the military said. The injured soldier was in stable condition. Two Iraqi children also were injured in the blast, said Dr. Mohammed Ahmed of al-Jumhuri hospital.
As of Friday, 949 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
Garen, who was kidnapped Aug. 13 in Nasiriyah, was released Sunday along with his Iraqi translator at al-Sadr's offices there after the cleric's aides appealed for his freedom.
APTN footage showed Garen in apparently good health, drinking soda on a couch next to Sheik Aws al-Khafaji, an al-Sadr aide in Nasiriyah.
"I feel like I have lots and lots of friends here and I hope that I can continue to work here," the 36-year-old New Yorker said.
Sheik Aws al-Khafaji, an al-Sadr aide, said Sunday night the kidnappers mistakenly had thought Garen was working for the U.S. intelligence services.
"The kidnappers listened to the call that we made during Friday prayers, and they contacted us and we asked them to bring him to [al-Sadr's] office and promised that no one would pursue them," al-Khafaji said.