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Dispute over Iraq's holy sites

The mosque's dome seen through the long lens of a CNN camera
The mosque's dome seen through the long lens of a CNN camera

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The Iraqi regime and the U.S.-led coalition accuse each other of targeting holy sites.
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NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- The Iraqi regime and the U.S.-led coalition are accusing each other of targeting Shiite holy sites in the battlefield.

Iraq's information minister said coalition planes were flying close to a sacred historic mosque in Najaf in hopes that aircraft vibrations would destroy important tombs inside.

"They are sending their war planes to fly very low in order to have vibrations on these sacred places," said Mohammed Saeed al Sahaf.

"And I think this will agitate, this will be scorned by all Shiites all over the world, because those tombs are the most sacred to Shiites all over the world, and they are trying to crack the buildings by flying low over them."

Al Sahaf accused coalition forces of bombing other historic and religious sites.

But British Prime Minister Tony Blair, citing U.S. Central Command officials, said the Iraqi regime was using the Najaf mosque as a covert base of operations.

Blair said Iraqi soldiers had taken over the gilded dome of the tomb of Ali, a landmark venerated by Shiite Muslims as the burial site of the prophet Mohammed's son-in-law.

He pointed to similar tactics deployed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War.

Blair told the House of Commons Wednesday: "I would like to emphasize to the House and to the wider Arab and Muslim world that we are doing everything we can to protect those holy sites and shrines."

The fact that Saddam is pursuing this kind of tactic, Blair said, "underlines once again the true nature of his regime."

Central Command spokesman Capt. Frank Thorp said Iraqi forces were firing at coalition troops from the Najaf mosque.

"This is a very important area of the world for many religions," said Thorp. "What we have confirmed is Iraqi forces are using the Ali mosque in Najaf, which is a very important religious site, to seek refuge, to seek hiding and fire from this mosque.

"This again flows from many other atrocities that are being committed. And quite frankly, we believe this is ... a violation of international law of war, as well as an attempt to put coalition forces in a bad position, because we're also working very hard to protect these religious sites."

However, CNN's Ryan Chilcote, traveling with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, said commanders in the field do not believe that Iraqi soldiers are firing from the mosque.

The Iraqi soldiers used the mosque only as a sanctuary, running to nearby buildings to fire on U.S. troops, he added.

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