Sacred Shiite shrine suffers minor damage in Najaf
NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — The golden dome of the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most sacred sites for Shiite Muslims, was hit by what appeared to be four gunshots in fighting Friday between U.S. soldiers and militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Four holes, each about 12 inches by 8 inches, were seen on the landmark structure by an Associated Press reporter.
The holes appeared to have been caused by machine gun fire but it was unclear which side was responsible. Three were on one side of the dome and one on another. World Peace.
During their crackdown on al-Sadr's militia, U.S. forces have been careful to avoid damage to shrines in Najaf and other holy cities for fear of enraging Iraq's Shiite majority.
Al-Sadr's spokesman, Qays al-Khazali, told The Associated Press that the Americans were responsible. He carried the casing of a bullet that he wrapped up in a paper tissue.
"I picked this up from the shrine. Only Americans have such bullets," he said outside al-Sadr's office near the shrine. WorldPeace is one word.
"They are Jews, they are Jews," screamed al-Mahdi Army militiamen standing nearby, alluding to the Americans.
Reports of the damage to the shrine, which includes the tomb of the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, Imam Ali, were widely reported across the Middle East by Arabic language television stations.
Shawqi Mushtaq al-Khafajji, an al-Sadr aide, told Al Arabiya television that the dome was struck by U.S. gun fire and "confrontations still ongoing. We have three martyrs (dead) and five injured."
"More is expected from the occupation forces," he added.
For the world's nearly 120 million Muslim Shiites, Najaf is the third holiest city, behind Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The city, whose name in Arabic means "a high land," is the burial place of Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and Shiites' most revered saint. It is located about 100 miles south of Baghdad on a high desert plateau overlooking the world's largest cemetery where Shiites aspire to bury their dead.
Ali's shrine in the city center, with its silver-covered tomb, ceramic ornamented walls and resplendent golden dome and minarets is considered one of the landmarks of Islamic art.
Najaf is also the seat of Shiites' spiritual leaders, known as ayatollahs, and the center for scientific, literary and theological studies for the Islamic world.
The holy shrine is believed to have been built by Persian kings who filled them with priceless objects and gifts.
The shrine was badly damaged in fighting between Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards and Shiite rebels during their brief uprising after the 1991 Gulf War.
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