Militants claim control of shrine

NAJAF (IRAQ), AUG. 21. Smoke was still rising today from a blackened building in Najaf that Shia militants said was hit by a U.S. air strike two days earlier. But the militia fighters at the receiving end of the bombings remained defiant and efforts to defuse the crisis in the holy city seemed to be leading nowhere.

An Iraqi Interior Ministry official had said yesterday that police had taken control of the Imam Ali Mosque but the scene at the shrine today suggested militants loyal to the rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had no plans to leave any time soon.

A hefty, bearded member of Mr. Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army with a machinegun and huge bullet belt poked fun at the Government for suggesting the fighters had given up control of the shrine to police.

``Do you have identification? You had better or those police inside the shrine may arrest you,'' he told reporters.

`No surrender'

While Mehdi Army fighters joked, a top aide to Mr. Al-Sadr made it clear they would not cave in to demands made by the interim Government of the Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi.

Sheikh Ahmad al-Sheibani said the Mehdi Army wanted to hand over the shrine to Najaf's religious establishment headed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Relative calm

Aside from a few exchanges of gunfire and a tank firing a few shells, Najaf was relatively calm in the morning. But Mr. Al-Sadr's fighters and volunteer supporters displayed a defiance that suggests the crisis may drag on. The young men say they are holy warriors for Mr. Al-Sadr.

``If American soldiers or Iraqi police or security come anywhere near here, they will be stepping into their graves,'' said Mr. Hussein, a fighter.

Three U.S. soldiers killed

Three U.S. soldiers were killed and five wounded in separate attacks in and near Baghdad in the last 24 hours, the U.S. military said. It said insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. military vehicle in southern Baghdad today, killing one soldier and wounding two.

In other incidents, a Polish soldier was killed and six ore were injured in central Iraq when a car bomb exploded as a military convoy passed by, officials said.