NAJAF, Iraq - The Shrine of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, was fired on yesterday and slightly damaged as U.S. troops clashed in Najaf and the adjacent city of Kufa with militiamen loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr, Iraqis and U.S. military authorities said.
At least 13 Iraqis were killed in the fighting.
The shrine was hit at least three times by mortars or other rounds that damaged a golden gate and the roof of an outer building. U.S. military authorities and Sadr's spokesmen traded blame for the incident.
The shrine is named for Ali, the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law and one of the first caliphs of the early Muslim nation. It is an extremely sensitive religious site for the world's Shiites, whose religious leaders, particularly in Iraq and Iran, have warned against fighting in Najaf that could result in its damage.
In Baghdad, a car bomb detonated near the Australian Embassy, injuring four people. The blast, which U.S. authorities said was a suicide bombing, occurred at 8:30 a.m. 50 yards from the embassy in the Jadhiria neighborhood.
The force of the blast overturned cars, left a 4-foot crater in the ground and shattered windows of the al-Karma hotel, where Jordanian and Egyptian businessmen were staying, the assistant manager said.
Among those injured was a 12-year-old boy, witnesses said.
In an separate incident in the city, a U.S. soldier was injured when insurgents fired rockets at an Iraqi police station, the military said.
Frequent bombings have created a climate of insecurity for Iraqis in the lead-up to the handover of power June 30, when the U.S.-led coalition plans to transfer sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government that has yet to be named.
"Nobody feels safe in this country at this moment," said Emad Hashem, the Al-Karma assistant manager. "In Baghdad, if you pass a car, you don't know what will happen."
Iraqis also were watching nervously the fighting in Najaf. Yesterday, Al-Jazeera television showed a torn curtain in front of one of the Shrine of Imam Ali's gates, damage to the outer wall and debris on the ground.
U.S. military authorities have said repeatedly that they take great pains not to harm the site for fear that a military misstep could increase support for Sadr among ordinary Shiite Iraqis.
U.S. military authorities denied they had fired on the mosque and accused Sadr of causing the damage.
Aides to Sadr accused U.S. troops of damaging the shrine. But in Kuwait, an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric and a moderate counterweight to Sadr in the holy city, accused Sadr's al-Mahdi Army of damaging the shrine, Al-Jazeera reported.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday, 796 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq at an end, 658 U.S. soldiers have died.
Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew J. Zabierek, 25, Chelmsford, Mass., died Friday in hostile action in Anbar province, Iraq; assigned to 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Army Staff Sgt. Jeremy R. Horton, 24, Carneys Point, Pa.; killed Friday by an explosive near Al Iskandariyah, Iraq; assigned to Company B, 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division; Baumholder, Germany.