Uprising kills 8 U.S. troops

Shiite cleric tells Iraqis to `terrorize your enemy'

Coordinated, widespread revolt

Tanks roll in as police, civil forces overwhelmed

April 05, 2004|By Nicholas Riccardi and Raheem Salman | Nicholas Riccardi and Raheem Salman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAJAF, Iraq - Thousands of followers of a virulently anti-American Shiite cleric heeded his calls for an uprising against the U.S.-led occupation, storming police stations and government buildings in several major cities yesterday and triggering clashes that left eight American soldiers and 21 Iraqis dead.

Hundreds of Iraqis - and more than three dozen U.S. soldiers - were also wounded in heavy fighting in central and southern Iraq. The seemingly coordinated attacks demonstrated the power of Iraq's Shiite majority and fanned long-held fears of an uprising in that population's southern stronghold.

Seven U.S. soldiers died in fighting in a Baghdad slum named after the cleric's assassinated father. Confrontations at a military base in the Shiite holy city of Najaf left at least one coalition soldier from El Salvador and 21 Iraqis dead, as well as more than 100 demonstrators injured. The Spanish Defense Ministry reported that a U.S. soldier was also killed in the clash near Najaf, but U.S. military officials could not confirm that information.

Skirmishes also erupted in the southern cities of Basra, Amarah and Nasiriyah. There was no sign hostilities would abate overnight.

The confrontation marked the culmination of months of tension between cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S.-led occupation forces. Almost all of the past year's attacks on the U.S.-led coalition forces are believed to have come from foreign fighters and Sunni Muslims loyal to the former regime of Saddam Hussein, which violently repressed Iraq's Shiite majority. Coalition officials have counted on the Shiites' support to stabilize the nation. Armed revolt by Shiites could threaten the U.S.-led occupation's June 30 deadline for handing power to the Iraqis.

Yesterday, U.S. tanks and troops rolled into a sprawling Baghdad slum known as Sadr City to prevent Sadr's supporters from causing more chaos.

"This is extremely dangerous," said Sheik Ghazi Al-Yawer, a member of the U.S.-backed Governing Council, which was forced to stay away from its offices yesterday. "What is happening in the south is very serious, it is a popular movement."

Yesterday's clashes were sparked by the arrest of a top Sadr aide for alleged involvement in the assassination a rival ayatollah last year. The arrest sparked rallies across the nation that began nonviolently Saturday, but by last night had escalated into running gun battles. The demonstration at the Spanish-run base in Najaf, about 80 miles south of Baghdad, ended only after coalition fighter jets and helicopters buzzed low over the crowds.

Secluded in a heavily guarded mosque in the nearby city of Kufa, Sadr issued an ambiguously worded pamphlet that called on his followers to quit their protest marches, but to find other ways to "horrify your enemy." He called the occupation forces "terrorists" and his supporters blamed coalition troops for starting the violence.

"Terrorize your enemy, God will reward you well for what pleases him. It is not possible to remain silent in front of their abuse," Sadr's statement said.

L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, condemned the violence during a news conference yesterday afternoon to announce the appointment of new Iraqi heads of the defense ministry and intelligence service.

Noting that Iraqis gained the freedom to hold public demonstrations after Hussein's ouster, Bremer said: "These freedoms must be exercised peacefully. This morning, a group of people in Najaf have crossed the line and they have moved to violence. This will not be tolerated."

The clashes with Sadr's supporters coincides with the approach of the Shiite holiday of Arbayeen, which begins Saturday. More than a million pilgrims are expected to flock to the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf to mark the close of the traditional 40-day mourning period for the prophet Mohammed's grandson Hussein.

Sadr's organization has demanded to control security at holy sites for the holiday, but the United States has refused. In statements last week, Sadr warned his followers that any violence this weekend will be the fault of the Americans.

Sadr commands the loyalty of vast numbers of impoverished Shiites in the Baghdad slums and in southern Iraq. Although he is considered far more radical than the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, he boasts a fervent following. Last fall, he began building a militia known as the Al Mahdi army, whose strength was undergoing its first test yesterday.

For months, Sadr has been in an uneasy standoff with the U.S.-led coalition. He has issued heated calls for Americans to leave Iraq. But except for a skirmish with coalition troops in October in a Baghdad slum, his forces have refrained from violence against the U.S.-led occupation.

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