U.S.-led soldiers maintain standoff with cleric

Coalition forces demand Shiite leader's surrender

October 19, 2003|By Tyler Marshall and David Lamb | Tyler Marshall and David Lamb,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KARBALA, Iraq - American-led forces surrounded the headquarters of a militant Shiite leader near one of Islam's most revered shrines yesterday and set up roadblocks to prevent more of his supporters from entering the town center a day after three U.S. soldiers were killed in a firefight with his bodyguards.

A U.S. military police battalion commander and two other Americans were killed and several wounded in Friday's brief but violent battle between U.S. and Iraqi police and followers of Ayatollah Mahmood Hassani. Two Iraqi police officers and a large but undetermined number of Hassani's armed followers also were killed.

Shortly after midday yesterday, a coalition military vehicle rigged with loudspeakers pulled up on a main street a few hundreds yards from Hassani's office and began blaring a demand that he and his followers lay down their arms.

"Attention! Attention! Attention! You are surrounded; it is useless to fight," the speaker declared in Arabic. "You are close to the holy shrines. You have to respect them, and you have to respect the clerics. Stop fighting. No more bloodshed is necessary. There is no need for more victims."

At a Polish military headquarters tent a few miles away, the head of coalition military forces in Iraq, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, met with local commanders and at least two other Army generals for about an hour, apparently discussing how best to end the standoff.

The senior officers' presence underscored the high stakes involved for the United States in ending the standoff without more fighting. Shiites make up a majority of Iraq's population and in general have been supportive of the U.S. occupation, in part because they suffered during the rule of Saddam Hussein, who is a Sunni Muslim. Any serious erosion of Shiite support could jeopardize America's effectiveness in Iraq.

None of the senior officers was prepared to comment.

"We can't talk about events that are still going on," said Capt. Vojtek Majeran of the Polish army, which is serving in the city.

In other developments in Iraq yesterday:

Thousands of U.S. and British troops conducted a series of coordinated raids and sweeps on the Al Faw peninsula in southeast Iraq to disrupt criminal activity and smuggling from the city of Basra to the Persian Gulf, U.S. commanders said.

Military officials said the troops, including 2,000 Marines and sailors, had seized oil barges, oil boats and other vehicles, and had arrested 80 people.

American officials and members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council did not reach an agreement on Turkey's offer to send 10,000 troops to Iraq, spokesmen said.

The council fears that Turkey could use its military presence to interfere in internal affairs, while the U.S. Defense Department sees the deployment as a means to reduce pressure on American troops.

In Baghdad, supporters of firebrand Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr complained that 12 members of a neighborhood council they had selected to replace one appointed by the coalition had been arrested. Coalition spokesman Charles Heatly confirmed that a dozen al-Sadr "loyalists" were arrested Thursday after they illegally took over a district council building.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press and Times special correspondent Raheem Salman contributed to this article.

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