Aides to militant Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr blamed U.S. tank fire on Friday for three small holes that appeared in the vast gilded dome of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrine, the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf.
Qais al-Khazali, Sadr’s chief spokesman, showed the damage to journalists after six hours of heavy fighting in which U.S. armor advanced for the first time onto sacred ground in its confrontation with Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia.
The holes, high above the ground, were on the side of the dome facing Najaf’s vast cemetery, where U.S. tanks stormed in to attack guerrilla positions hidden among the tombs.
But it was not possible for Reuters correspondents at the scene to determine when or how the damage was caused.
The U.S. commander in the region, Major-General Martin Dempsey, repeated that his forces were trying to avoid damaging holy places. Such action would risk inflaming religious passions among the 60 percent of Iraqis who follow the Shi’ite faith.
The damaged shrine is dedicated to Imam Ali, the 7th century Muslim leader whose descendants founded the Shi’ite branch of Islam. There was also fighting close to other important Shi’ite shrines in the holy city of Kerbala, 50 km (30 miles) away.
About 250 Sadr fighters paraded before the Imam Ali mosque during a lull in Friday’s battle chanting “Long live, Moqtada!.”
Khazali renewed promises of retribution against the U.S. forces that he said had crossed a “red line” onto sacred ground.
“There are no red lines left now that the Imam Ali shrine, our holy of holies, has been violated,” he said.
Sadr’s militia, who rose up against the U.S.-led occupation across Shi’ite southern Iraq, have been under increasing pressure from the U.S. military onslaught and from irritation among rival Shi’ite leaders anxious to end the fighting.