At Least 18 Killed Overnight in Kufa

Wext: Sunday, 23.May. @ 00:00:00 CEST


23.05.2004 KARBALA, Iraq - U.S. forces battled fighters loyal to radical Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in his stronghold of Kufa overnight Sunday, and at least 18 people died. Many militiamen returned to their homes after abandoning the center of another holy Shiite city, Karbala, witnesses said.

The clashes broke out when American tanks and troops moved into the city for the first time as part of an effort to weaken the militia of al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the U.S.-led occupation who launched an uprising against the coalition in early April. He routinely delivers a sermon at Friday prayers in Kufa

Maytham Lazim, a medic with the city's Furat al-Awsat hospital, said 18 people were killed and 11 wounded. There were no reports of U.S. casualties.

Resident Mohammed Abdul-Kareem said the dead included three civilians whose houses were damaged in the fighting, which lasted from 10 p.m. Saturday until 6 a.m.

U.S. troops broke into Kufa's Sahla mosque in pursuit of the militias, smashing the door with an armored vehicle and killing people inside, said Radhi Mohammed, a mosque employee.

An Associated Press photographer saw bloodstains on the floor that indicated someone had been dragged for at least 10 yards. There was also blood in the bathrooms.

The U.S. military has said al-Sadr's forces are using mosques and shrines to store weapons and organize attacks, while the radical cleric's supporters have accused the military of desecrating holy places.

There was also overnight fighting in the holy city of Najaf, but Karbala was quiet Sunday. Fighters said they had heard there was a truce with American forces, who were also not seen in the streets.

The U.S. military, however, denied claims that all combatants had agreed to withdraw from the city. "There was no cease fire, no deal made in Karbala," said Maj. David Gercken, spokesman for the 1st Armored Division. "We do not and will not make deals with militias or criminals."

U.S. forces captured 10 militiamen overnight, but encountered little or no resistance during patrols, Gercken said. The 1st Armored Division has been conducting operations in Karbala.

"We have kept pressure on them, kept engaging them and been successful with those operations," Gercken said.

Gercken said an Iraqi police force was expected to begin patrolling Karbala later Sunday.

Iraqi leaders in Karbala have been trying to negotiate an end to the fighting, though coalition officials have demanded that al-Sadr disband his militia and "face justice." The cleric is wanted in the murder of a rival moderate cleric last year.

"There is no presence of armed militias in the city," said Adham Mahmoud, a hotel worker in Karbala. "People have started leaving their homes and going into the streets. Some have embarked on reconstructing their damaged houses."

There was no sign Sunday of al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army around Karbala's Imam Hussein shrine, one of Shia Islam's holiest sites. The shrine was guarded by a special security force in civilian clothing that was appointed by top Shiite clerics.

The fighting has damaged the local economy, which is based on tourism by Shiite pilgrims who have been frightened away by conflict. Many residents have said they want all armed groups to leave.

"We are fed up with the situation," said Mutaz Hussein, whose business running a market stall has dried up because of the fighting. "We neither want the Americans nor the militias to stay in the city. Fighting is preventing us from earning a living."

North of Baghdad, gunmen killed a police captain and a university student in Baqouba on Sunday, a hospital official said. Capt. Haidar Hadi was giving the student a lift to Baghdad when the gunmen opened fire. A police sergeant in the car was injured, said Nassir Jawad of Baqouba General Hospital.

A policeman was killed and two others were seriously injured when a bomb exploded as they patrolled between Basra and Zubeir in southern Iraq on Sunday, police said.

Insurgents routinely target police and other Iraqis who are working with the U.S.-led coalition governing Iraq.

In Basra, a mortar shell landed on a house in al-Iskan district, killing one woman and injuring five men, said Khalid Abdelallah, an official at Mawanei Hospital. It was unclear who fired the mortar round.

Source: AP

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