Iran endorses U.S. claim on Iraqi shrines

By ANWAR IQBAL   |   April 8, 2003 at 11:00 PM

WASHINGTON, April 8 (UPI) -- Iran has made a rare conciliatory gesture towards the United States by endorsing the U.S. statement that coalition forces had not damaged the Shiite religion's two holiest shrines in Iraq.

Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency carried a telephone interview on Tuesday with a prominent Shiite cleric who said the shrines were "untouched."

The Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala have the mausoleums of the first and the third imams of the Shiite Muslims. Any damage to these shrines could inflame emotions across the Islamic world as Islam's majority Sunni sect also regards the two imams as holy, one of whom -- Ali -- was the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed and the other -- Hussain -- his grandson.

Since Iran is so far the world's only Shiite state, Iran's endorsement of the U.S. claim would go a long way in pacifying the Shiites, particularly in Iraq where the Shiites are a majority.

Observers say that if Iran wanted, it could have turned up the heat on the Americans by endorsing a counter-claim by Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahhaf who said last Wednesday that coalition forces were trying to destroy the two mausoleums.

Instead, the official news agency ran an interview with a prominent Shiite cleric, Seyyed Abdelmajid al-Khoei who said: " This claim that holy sites have been damaged is not true at all."

Khoei, who arrived from London last Tuesday and now lives in Najaf, the site of the mausoleum of Imam Ali, is also a prominent member of the anti-Saddam Iraqi opposition.

"Believe me, not a single bullet has hit the wall of the shrine," Khoei told the Iranian news agency.

The U.S. Central Command has also blamed Iraq for any damage, saying that coalition forces were making every effort to protect Muslim holy sites.

Khoei has also said that in the past the pro-Saddam militia had used residential areas in Najaf as human shields to protect themselves against the coalition forces.

The cleric told IRNA that life in the Shiite holy city was "very much back to normal."

"Restaurants, shops and the grand bazaar are open but the city does not have electricity which forces shopkeepers to close early," he added.

The city was also facing a shortage of gas as all gas stations ran on electricity, the cleric said.

Khoei said Najaf was "completely in the hands of its residents and the last remnants of Iraqi militiamen from the ruling Baath party and Saddam's suicidal Fedayeen forces had "either been killed, captured or fled."

Khoei also said that residents of Najaf assisted coalition forces in fighting Saddam's men, pointing out their hideouts and leading U.S. troops to them. This assistance, he said, helped in "breaking their resistance."

The cleric said that coalition forces were only controlling the entry and exit routes and there was no military presence inside Najaf.

"Running water, which was cut a week ago after the Baath forces blew off the main network upon retreat, was restored on Monday," he added.

The city administration, he said, was not functioning and all government offices and schools were closed.

"Local tribal heads, traders, teachers and former state officials have set up an interim setup of volunteers, which is now running the city's affairs," he added.

Khoei said the other Shiite holy city of Karbala was also peaceful and the fighting around the city, located on a strategic highway to Baghdad, also had subsided.

In another apparent display of peace toward the United States, the official Iranian news agency points out after the first Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein's troops had ruthlessly crushed popular Shiite uprisings in these two cities.

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