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CNN BREAKING NEWS

New Fighting in Najaf

Aired August 19, 2004 - 09:02   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get straight away to Baghdad right now and try to figure out what's happening in Najaf. There's been new fighting in Najaf outside the shrine where the radical cleric Muqtada Al Sadr is believed to be holed up. John Vause is in Baghdad now trying to get updates for us now.
John, good afternoon there. What do you have?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. And good morning to you, Bill.

By all accounts, some fierce fighting around the Imam Ali Mosque, a scene of the standoff now for more than two weeks with the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr. We have CNN producer Kianne Sadeq on the line now from Najaf. She was inside that mosque just a short time ago.

Kianne, what can you tell us about the current state of the fighting there in Najaf?

KIANNE SADEQ, CNN PRODUCER: Well, John, I just came out of the mosque. When we went in there, it was actually very fearsome. We walked -- we drove in very carefully with a group of journalists in a -- in about a 10-car convoy.

Now, the entire street, about 100 meters -- 100 to 150 meters leading up to the Imam Ali Mosque is completely destroyed. All the shops, all -- I mean, it's completely destroyed.

Windows are shattered. The pillows -- pillars are broken. Stores are shut.

It is just a ghost land. There -- all there is now is a large group of Mehdi Army, which are -- occupy that area. And just -- just before you get there, there are American tanks.

So we walked in, and once we walked into the mosque, we were cheered on, we were very well received by members of the Mehdi Army. We were very well received. They were cheering and chanting about everything they were doing. They were very proud to be in there, and didn't -- had absolutely no intentions of leaving.

There were some women in there. Of course, a very few, maybe five or six. But there were some women in there. In fact, there were some children in there.

We also saw medical help. They seemed to have -- there seemed to be some supplies for medical support in that mosque, and some people dressed in smocks that seemed to be doctors. I'm not sure if they were, but they seemed to be doctors there to care for the injured.

And we -- we -- we were in there. We were given an opportunity to walk inside. There's a large room where they sit all the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for Muqtada Al Sadr. We did not see Muqtada Al Sadr. We do not know if he is in there or not, even though we were told that he is in fact not in there.

We were -- while you're in the mosque, you hear constant firing, RPG fire, mortar fire. I mean, I'm not exactly sure about this, but all different kinds of loud firing constantly going on. It does -- it does not stop. It does not stop. It does not stop. It keeps going on and on and on and on.

The mosque seems to be OK, just some minor damage to the two pillars in the mosque. Minor damage, but nothing serious to the mosque. Everything outside of the mosque seems to be totaled -- John.

VAUSE: Kianne, a couple of questions here. What can you tell us about the movement of U.S. forces, the position of snipers around the mosque, and the tanks, and the U.S. Marines currently deployed in Najaf?

SADEQ: Yes, John. As a matter of fact, we arrived here yesterday sometime around -- in the afternoon. And around 4:00 or 5:00 in the evening, we tried -- attempted to go to the mosque, and there was an extreme amount of sniper fire. Extreme amount of sniper fire seems to be coming from both sides, from the American side, as well as the Iraqi side. And it's a very dangerous area to go through, because it seems like these people are not seeing who's coming by.

We were told by some people in the neighborhood that in fact there was a dead body that had been in its position for about three days and they could not move it out of the way because they could not risk going into that street and to take that body away because of the amount of sniper fire. We heard many, many shots, John.

We tried to go there again this morning, and once again we were stopped by a large amount of sniper fire. And it's just too dangerous to either walk or go in vehicles, because you don't know where these bullets are flying.

We ended up going in there by the help of actually every side. We were helped by the governor's office, as well as by the U.S. military.

They surrounded the outskirts of the mosque with -- with their tanks. And you have to get by them. But once you're by them, you also have to get by the Mehdi Army before you can get into the mosque.

So there's a surround -- there's a ring around the mosque of U.S. military. Just after you get past that, there's about 100 to 150 meters of Mehdi Army militia, and -- with -- just hiding, you know, around in the streets near -- leading to the mosque. And you have to be able to get by both. We were lucky enough -- we were lucky enough to get by both -- both groups. And we were led into the mosque. And we were in fact helped by both sides to leave the mosque.

We were told that we must leave the mosque, even if we wanted to stay. They were going to assist us out of the mosque because they felt that it would be too dangerous for us to stay there any longer. So they -- you know, they made us all leave, and we had all -- we all ended up leaving in a convoy together.

Our hotel is very near to that area. But it's not -- not where any of -- any of the fighting is going on. And we drove up here.

VAUSE: OK.

SADEQ: And everybody is safe.

VAUSE: And Kianne, whilst you were inside that mosque, you had a chance to speak with one of Muqtada Al Sadr's senior aides. He said that Muqtada Al Sadr, the cleric, is not inside the mosque. They did not tell you where he is. But did he give you a reason why Muqtada Al Sadr is refusing to negotiate on this ultimatum, this ultimatum that was delivered by the minister of state a few hours ago?

SADEQ: Well, in fact, John, what the -- what his aides told me, Ahmed Shavani (ph), what his aides told me, and as well as (UNINTELLIGIBLE) who were in there, they said that in fact he did want to -- they said that in fact Muqtada Al Sadr did want to negotiate with this delegation from the National Congress -- the National Congress, and the reason why he did not was because the attacks and the loud sounds of explosions outside the mosque were far too many.

He also said that today that they are not going to respond to this request by the government, by the minister of state who gave (ph) pressure over here. He said, "We will not respond to this because we are not negotiating with these people." He said, "We are negotiating with the National Council. So if they want to negotiate with us, we want to negotiate with them."

But this minister of state does not have anything to do with the National Council. These (UNINTELLIGIBLE) people who we want to negotiate with -- John.

VAUSE: OK. CNN producer Kianne Sadeq, who was recently just inside the Imam Ali Mosque, the scene -- or the focus, rather, of what appears to be some very, very intense fighting in Najaf.

Bill, a couple of important points to recap there from what Kianne was saying. Firstly, spokespeople for Muqtada Al Sadr saying that the radical Shiite cleric is in fact not inside the mosque. Whether or not that is true, whether we can independently verify that in any way -- but they're certainly claiming that he is in nowhere inside the Imam Ali Mosque right now.

And the reason why Muqtada Al Sadr has not listened or not heeded those ultimatums coming from the minister of state, according to Muqtada Al Sadr's spokesperson, he does not recognize the authority of the Iraqi interim government. And according to Kianne, who spoke with these aides to al-Sadr, al-Sadr was apparently willing to negotiate with that delegation which arrived in Najaf on Tuesday from the Iraqi National Conference.

That was a gathering of more than 1,000 delegates here in Baghdad over the last four days or so. The reason being that they were more representatives of the Iraqi people than the interim Iraqi government -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right. John, thanks. Good work, too, in Baghdad. John Vause reporting there.

And also to Kianne and her crew down in Najaf, stay safe over there as they continue to give us exclusive looks inside now, not just to that shrine, but also what's happening in the area just outside of it.

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