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Iraq: Foreigners threatening mosque

National conference troubled by protests, attacks

The Imam Ali Mosque serves as camp for supporters of al-Sadr.
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Iraqi insurgets' attempt to disrupt the democratic process in Iraq

Renewed clashes dampen hopes for cease-fire in Najaf.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Twenty-five heavily armed foreigners holed up inside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf have rigged it with explosives and are threatening to blow up the building if attacked, the Iraqi Interior Ministry said Sunday in a written statement.

The statement said the interim Iraqi government has ordered national guard forces not to target the mosque, and not to approach it.

The mosque, in the center of Najaf, is a holy site to Shiite Muslims. They believe it houses the tomb of the Prophet Muhammed's cousin and son-in-law.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi National Conference, intended to help shape democracy, was interrupted Sunday by protesters who demanded an end to violence in Najaf.

Minutes after the disruption, a series of mortar rounds landed less than a mile from the conference site in Baghdad's Green Zone. Two people were killed and 17 others wounded, according to Iraq's Interior Ministry.

Najaf violence

In recent days, supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia has engaged U.S. and Iraqi forces across the country, have come to the city to protect the mosque.

Iraqi authorities have said people inside the mosque compound have fired mortars and laid land mines in the sacred compound. An al-Sadr spokesman denied those claims.

Clashes resumed in Najaf on Sunday, a day after efforts to broker a peace agreement in the Iraqi city failed, according to the city's governor.

Two U.S. troops were killed Sunday by a sniper in the ancient cemetery that adjoins the shrine, in the center of Najaf, U.S. Army officials said.

A U.S. military patrol came under fire from al-Sadr's Mehdi Army fighters near Najaf's cemetery, according to CNN's Matthew Chance, who is embedded with the U.S. military in Najaf.

After taking fire from rocket-propelled grenades and snipers, Marines returned fire, killing at least two al-Sadr forces.

All journalists have been ordered -- for their safety -- to leave Najaf, a Ministry of Interior official said. Chance said he had not been notified of the order.

After efforts to reach a truce with al-Sadr's militia failed, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie on Saturday declared that military operations would resume to "return the city of Najaf to normal city functions and to establish law and order."

Iraq's national security advisor has said the government "left no stone unturned" in its efforts to peacefully resolve the standoff in Najaf.

In Najaf on Saturday, al-Sadr, one arm wrapped in a bandage, demanded U.S. forces leave Iraq and told the crowd to defend Najaf and "be a martyr."

An aide to the cleric said al-Sadr suffered minor shrapnel wounds while he was in the Imam Ali Shrine compound.

Smoke can be seen rising beyond Najaf's vast cemetery on Sunday.

"Nobody can force me to leave or depart you," al-Sadr said. "We got rid of Saddam [Hussein] only to have him replaced by something worse than him."

Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army has been battling U.S. and Iraqi forces in Najaf for more than a week. The huge mosque compound is surrounded by Iraqi forces, but authorities have said there is no plan to storm the site.

National conference

At the Iraqi National Conference, 1,500 Iraqi leaders will choose a 100-person interim body that will advise and oversee the newly installed interim government.

"This conference is not the end of the road for us, it is the first step ... to open up horizons of dialogue," interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told the delegates in an opening speech.

"Your blessed gathering here is a challenge to the forces of evil and tyranny that want to destroy this country."

However, after a speech by U.N. Special Envoy Ashraf Qazi, protesters representing the Shia House, a confederation of Shiite leaders, jumped from their seats demanding an end to fighting in Najaf and calling for the resignation of the city's police chief and his force.

Iraqi officials immediately put a positive spin on the outburst.

"This is democracy, definitely," interim Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN. "The whole idea of this platform is to give every Iraqi the opportunity to come and speak out.

He said those who spoke out Sunday would have a chance at some point during the conference to voice their concerns. "The agenda of the conference has been agreed by its preparatory committee," Zebari said.

"The president spoke, the prime minister spoke, the U.N. spoke and that was the opening session. There would be opportunities for those to speak out their views."

Other developments

  • Also Sunday, a Task Force Baghdad soldier was killed when an improvised explosive device detonated in northern Baghdad, an Army spokesman said. He said he did not know whether the soldier was American.
  • In Sadr City, one of Baghdad's poorest neighborhoods, three Iraqis were killed and 20 others were wounded in clashes between the Medhi army and U.S. troops, the Ministry of Health said.
  • CNN's Matthew Chance, Odai Sadik and John Vause contributed to this story.

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