Shiites protest U.S. in Baghdad

Anger erupts at funeral of 2 Iraqis shot Thursday

Soldiers also died in firefight

October 11, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Shiite anger against Americans spilled over into Friday prayers in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum where two Iraqis and two American soldiers were killed Thursday night.

The violence and subsequent public outrage raised fears of new dangers to U.S. troops from the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a young anti-American cleric.

Yesterday, a seething throng of perhaps 10,000 gathered to pay their respects to the men they believe were killed by U.S. forces the night before.

"No, no, to America!" they chanted as wooden coffins holding the remains of the "martyrs" were paraded along a main street in this neighborhood of some 2 million people, called Sadr City in part for Sadr's father, a popular cleric who was assassinated in 1999 - on Saddam Hussein's orders, many believe.

Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Daraji, an aide to Sadr, delivered the sermon yesterday and issued a defiant demand: That no American soldiers be allowed inside Sadr City.

"America, which calls itself the supporter of democracy, is nothing but a big terrorist organization that is leading the world with its terrorism and arrogance," he said.

For the past six months, the greatest threat to U.S. soldiers has come from common criminals or people loyal to Hussein, who was from the Sunni sect of Islam, a minority in Iraq.

The majority Shiites, repressed under Hussein, have been broadly more supportive and have rarely been thought to be responsible for attacks on American soldiers.

Tensions have been growing for several days between U.S. troops and Sadr's followers, who represent only a fraction of Iraq's Shiite population.

On Wednesday, 1,000 or more of his followers blocked off streets in front of the U.S. headquarters in downtown Baghdad in a tense but largely peaceful demonstration demanding the release of another cleric allied with Sadr.

The cleric had been arrested after guns and ammunition were found in his mosque, according to a U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. George Krivo.

Despite the volume and visibility of Sadr's followers, there is some debate about his actual influence among Shiites, many of whom follow more moderate religious leaders. It is not hard to find people even in Sadr City who speak out openly against him.

"You put a badge on your chest and wrap a piece of green cloth on your head and you become the defender of the faith," said Sa'ad Khudair, owner of a barbershop. "It's not right. They are thugs."

Krivo also cautioned against making too much of either the incident or Sadr and his followers.

"Let's not paint the whole area, or the whole 2 million-plus people who are living there, with the same brush," he said. "There are specific areas there that are challenging, just as there are specific areas throughout the country that are challenging. So be careful not to generalize too much about this area."

The spark for the recent violence appeared to be a suicide attack Thursday morning at an Iraqi police station, in which a bomber crashed through a gate in an Oldsmobile and detonated a powerful bomb, killing at least eight other people.

Several hours later, American soldiers surrounded Sadr's headquarters several blocks away. Local residents and clerics said the soldiers entered the headquarters and several of them were beaten up and had their guns taken away.

Iraqi witnesses said militia members then blocked off the street in front of the headquarters and about 8 p.m. three Humvees with Americans drove up to the blockade.

Accounts differ of what happened next. Krivo said the soldiers arrived after several people requested "humanitarian assistance."

"There were some people that came out, met with the forces and said, `Please come in. We need to show you something important.'" It was then that people in the crowd attacked, he said.

In addition to the two soldiers killed, four were injured. Krivo said a special unit was called in to rescue them, sparking an exchange of fire that witnesses said lasted an hour or more.

"From our reports, we believe this was a deliberate and planned ambush," he said. "This was not just a hasty act."

The soldiers faced an arsenal of weapons that included small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, as well as explosives, Krivo added.

But many people in the neighborhood said the soldiers fired first.

"The Americans started shooting randomly," said Hassan Khadhim, 22, owner of shop next to where the shootout took place. "Mostly, they were shooting in the air to frighten people. So our people shot back at them."

Some witnesses, however, agreed that it was an ambush.

"Muqtada's people were hiding behind the mural waiting for them," said Muhammad Kadhim, 31, a post office employee. "When the Americans came, they started shooting at them, and all the Americans were trying to do was just to leave."

The mural he referred to is a huge and heroic billboard in a traffic circle painted with the faces of Sadr's father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, and Muhammad Baqr al-Sadr, an Islamist scholar and founder of the religious Dawa Party who was executed by Hussein in 1980.

One of the two Iraqis killed was shot at the base of the mural, witnesses said.

Despite the proximity of the bombing and the later shootout, Krivo said, there was no evidence to suggest they were linked in any way, though he said he could not rule it out.

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