Stephen Farrell / The Australian – 2004-08-19 23:44:57
(August 18, 2004) — Iraqi police have threatened to kill every journalist working in the holy city of Najaf, where US forces are locked in a tense stand-off with Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army.
After a series of veiled warnings to leave on Sunday, two marked police cars pulled up at dusk outside the Sea of Najaf hotel on the outskirts of town, where Arab and Western journalists are staying. Ten uniformed policemen walked into the hotel and demanded that the al-Arabiya, Reuters and AP correspondents go with them.
Journalists told them they were not there, but the policemen found and arrested Ahmed al-Salahih, the al-Arabiya correspondent, who the day before had been given a special exemption from the earlier eviction orders.
A uniformed lieutenant then told the assembled journalists and hotel staff: “We are going to open fire on this hotel. I’m going to smash it all, kill you all, and I’m going to put four snipers to target anybody who goes out of the hotel. You have brought it upon yourselves.”
After pushing and shoving in the foyer, another policeman pointed his gun towards a member of the staff, but was disarmed by an Arab television journalist. The police left, taking the al-Arabiya correspondent with them, drove 300 meters and fired warning shots.
The attempt to drive journalists from Najaf came as US marines — supported by the nascent Iraqi army — step up the pressure on Sadr, whose forces remain in control of Najaf’s old city and sacred shrine to Imam Ali.
The Government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is acutely sensitive to the maelstrom that would erupt if the shrine were to be damaged, and the media crackdown may be an attempt to limit the negative publicity should it be hit during any military operation.
After US marine commanders last week issued a hawkish threat “to finish this fight that the Moqtada militia started,” Mr Allawi moved swiftly to defuse alarm even among his own senior government officials, reassuring Iraqis: “The holy shrine will remain safe from all attacks that could possibly harm its sacredness.”
Any military operation will be hampered by the fact that Sadr’s hundreds of fighters inside the old city and cemetery have grown by about 2,000, swelled by volunteers who marched through US lines at the weekend to act as human shields. Yesterday they paraded around the marble white-tiled courtyard inside the golden-domed mosque, effectively turning it into a giant stadium for rallies to the renegade Shia cleric. All were unarmed but insisted they would pick up the guns of any Mehdi fighters killed in renewed clashes.
In the streets outside the shrine, terrified Iraqis hid inside their homes, with intermittent fire between the US tanks and Mehdi Army guerillas, who have planted huge booby traps on almost every street. Few ordinary Najafis will now stray beyond their doorsteps.
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