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Shia outrage over shrine 'attacks'
by bbc
Wednesday May 19th, 2004 10:22 AM
As fighting continues in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala, Shia leaders in Lebanon and neighbouring Iran have criticised US forces for attacking the holy sites there and in the nearby town of Najaf.
US troops are fighting the militia loyal to radical young Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr which occupied the two holy cities last month.

The leader of the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah has accused US soldiers of attacking Iraq's holy shrines.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah told a rally in Beirut that, in so doing, the Americans were attacking all Shia worldwide.

The same charge has come from a prominent Iraqi cleric based in Iran - Ayatollah Kadhim al-Haeri. He is the spiritual mentor of Mr Sadr.

The Americans deny they are deliberately targeting the holy places of Najaf and Karbala - but accuse Mr Sadr's fighters of taking refuge in the shrines and using them to store weapons.

Rebuke to Sadr

On Tuesday, Iraq's leading Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a statement calling on all forces to leave the two holy cities.

The statement was, in effect, a rebuke to Mr Sadr - flatly contradicting his call for Shias to rally to his support in Najaf.

But it was couched in typically ambivalent language.

Efforts by Shia political and tribal figures to broker an agreement - whereby Mr Sadr's militia would withdraw from the holy cities and turn itself into a purely political organisation - have so far failed.

Shia leaders fear prolonged fighting might not only damage the shrines but spark conflict between different Shia factions.