Iraq militias warned of showdown with Coalition Forces

Gulf Daily News

7 September 2003


The US-led coalition appeared yesterday headed for a showdown with Iraqi militias after giving them an ultimatum to lay down their arms that was immediately rejected by a leading anti-US firebrand.

Captain Edward Lofland, spokesman for the US Marines in this holy Shi'ite city, said coalition forces had given unauthorised militias until Saturday to disarm or have their weapons confiscated and face possible arrest.

A leading Shi'ite group, whose head was among 83 people killed in a massive car bombing nine days ago, gave qualified backing to the disarmament drive. But an aide to the cleric Moqtada Sadr dismissed it categorically.

"We obey only God and our religious leaders. We don't care about what the Americans say," said Sheikh Juad Al Issawi, a member of Sadr's office.

The presence of heavily-armed militia in Najaf and elsewhere has become a key issue in efforts to stabilise Iraq, which has been plagued by violence and lawlessness since Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Lofland said the deployment by the two largest Shi''ite factions on the streets of Najaf and nearby Kufah since the car bombing here was a clear violation of the ban on militia imposed by the coalition in June.

He said they had until Saturday to surrender their weapons. "After that, we will take their arms away and, if they resist, we will arrest them and put them in jail," Lofland said.

He said the coalition would prefer the militia to disarm voluntarily and, in the second instance, would call upon Iraqi police. But in the last resort, he said: "We will not hesitate to disarm them by force if necessary."

Sedreddin Al Kubbanji, the Najaf chief of Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), agreed with the deadline but called on the coalition to clear more people protecting Muslim shrines and clerics.

"I think there is no problem in principle," Kubbanji said. "The principle is that those who carry the weapons should do so within the regulations and with licences."

Kubbanji also said that an assassination attempt on leading Shi'ite leader, Ayatollah Bashir Al Najafi, was foiled by the SCIRI.

A man was discovered in Najafi's house on Saturday and confessed to being a member of Saddam's Fedayeen and that he went there with the intention of assassinating the religious figure, Kubbanji said. He also confessed to previously killing two American soldiers in Baghdad.

US troops battling Saddam loyalists have struck an "unusually" quiet spell with no dead or wounded reported for 48 hours, a US military official said in Baghdad yesterday.

"In the last 48 hours there have not been any casualties. It has been unusually quiet."

He said no casualties meant no US personnel dead or wounded.