4 more U.S. soldiers are killed in Iraq

3 die as paratroopers clash with bodyguards of cleric in Shiite holy city

October 18, 2003|By David Lamb and Raheem Salman | David Lamb and Raheem Salman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KARBALA, Iraq - Four U.S. soldiers were killed late Thursday night and early yesterday in two incidents - a roadside bombing in Baghdad and a brief, fierce firefight between U.S. paratroopers and gunmen in this Shiite Muslim holy city south of the capital.

Their deaths brought to 336 the number of Americans reported killed since the war began March 20. The Karbala clash also marked the deadliest incident for U.S. troops since Sept. 18, when three soldiers were slain near the city of Tikrit.

The battle in this largely Shiite city began Thursday just before midnight.

U.S. commanders said the clash started when about 20 bodyguards for a relatively minor ayatollah, Mahmoud Hassani, opened fire on a joint Iraqi-American patrol that had gone to the cleric's house to investigate reports of armed men in the streets after curfew.

The bodyguards fired at the patrol from the roof of Hassani's gated home, the officers said.

Within minutes, witnesses said, reinforcements from the 101st Airborne Division arrived and fighting raged.

The battle took the lives of three unidentified U.S. military policemen, an Iraqi police sergeant and eight of the gunmen, Iraqi police and a U.S. spokesman said.

At least five Americans and two Iraqi policemen were also wounded. Ten suspects were detained by U.S.-led forces.

One of the surviving bodyguards said the U.S.-led patrol opened fire first.

"The Americans came about 11:45 [p.m.]," said the bodyguard, who identified himself as Sheik Haider, 20. "The squad consisted of four armored vehicles and stood in front of the house.

"They asked about our weapons through a translator. We told them we are protecting [Hassani's] house. They wanted to disarm us, but we did not accept. They opened fire against us."

An Iraqi police commander at the scene said of the bodyguards: "We know these people, and most are Baathists" loyal to the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

Hours later in Baghdad, a soldier from the 220th Military Police Brigade was killed and two of his colleagues were wounded in a bomb blast.

The U.S. command provided no additional details, but guerrillas opposing the occupation of Iraq have increasingly used roadside bombs set off by remote devices to harass and kill U.S. soldiers on patrol.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told an audience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., last week that the continuing ability of resistance fighters to "terrorize and frighten" the Iraqi population had surprised him.

But he said U.S.-led forces make about 1,700 patrols a day in Iraq and less than 1 percent involve any kind of armed conflict.

"It is a very low-intensity situation, percentage-wise; nonetheless people are getting killed," he said.

Attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq average 20 a day, U.S. commanders say.

U.S.-led coalition forces had imposed a 9 p.m. curfew in Karbala earlier this week after a number of deadly clashes here between rival Shiite Muslim factions jockeying for influence in the postwar Iraq.

The Shiites, who represent about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, were ruthlessly suppressed by Hussein but are now flexing their muscle and sometimes battling each other in an attempt to gain political power.

Some of the Shiite factions, such as the one led by Muktader Sadr, have armed wings that openly defy U.S. bans on private armies and people carrying unlicensed guns.

This presents a dilemma for U.S. commanders who need to establish authority but do not want to alienate the influential Shiite population.

Sadr, a cleric with a following of mostly poor and unemployed young people, has given fiery sermons denouncing the U.S.-led occupation but has stopped short of calling for attacks on Americans.

His father and two brothers were killed four years ago by assassins allegedly linked to Hussein's security forces.

Hassani also ran afoul of Hussein and was reportedly in jail when U.S. forces entered Iraq in March.

Some U.S. military sources have suggested privately that U.S. commanders are preparing for a showdown with Sadr, who announced last week that he had formed his own government and named a Cabinet.

Later he seemed to drop the idea when he received little public support. But yesterday, at prayers he led in the city of Najaf, about 50 miles southeast of Karbala, he again referred to his new government.

"The Americans are occupying Iraq for the benefit of Israel," he told about 4,000 followers. "Stability in the Middle East can not be achieved unless they give us a deadline for the end of occupation."

His government, he said, would give Iraqis a chance to express their sentiments on the occupation.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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