Uprising kills 8 U.S. troops

Shiite cleric tells Iraqis to `terrorize your enemy'

Coordinated, widespread revolt

Militiamen overwhelm police and civil forces

8 U.S. troops killed in Iraq uprising

April 05, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Followers of a firebrand cleric launched a coordinated and widespread uprising against U.S.-led occupation forces yesterday, killing eight American soldiers in clashes in Sadr City, the Shiite Muslim stronghold on the outskirts of Baghdad, and near the holy city of Najaf.

Also, two U.S. Marines died in fighting in Anbar province over the weekend, raising the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq to 610.

An Iraqi health official in Najaf said 24 people were killed, including one U.S. soldier, and about 200 wounded in clashes. Armed militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a 31-year-old Shiite cleric, besieged a garrison commanded by Spanish troops on the road leading into Najaf from the neighboring town of Kufa. An American military spokesman said that one Salvadoran soldier was killed in Kufa and 13 soldiers wounded, including an American. All other casualties were said to be Iraqis.

Within hours of a call by al-Sadr to his followers to "terrorize your enemy," his militiamen, said to number tens of thousands across Iraq, emerged into the streets of Baghdad, Najaf, Kufa and Amarah, a city 175 miles south of Baghdad where four Iraqis were reported to have been killed in clashes with British troops.

Forbidden to bear arms under a decree issued last year by the American occupation authority, the Sadr militiamen bristled with a wide array of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades that were fired at American tanks in Sadr City. Seven U.S. soldiers were killed in clashes there.

Taking advantage of an American policy that has largely kept American and other occupation troops out of volatile Shiite population centers such as Sadr City, Najaf and Kufa, the militiamen succeeded in taking control of checkpoints and police stations in all three cities that had been manned by Iraqi-trained police and civil defense force.

Residents in the three cities said the Iraqis had abandoned their posts almost as soon as the militiamen appeared with their weapons, leaving the militiamen in unchallenged control - and punching a huge hole in American hopes that American-trained Iraqis can be relied on increasingly to take over from U.S. troops in providing security in Iraq's major cities.

The insurrection, which spread across the Shiite heartland in a matter of hours, came five days after the ambush in the predominantly Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah, outside Baghdad, in which a mob mutilated the bodies of four American security guards and hanged two of the bodies from a bridge. Together, the events in Fallujah and the other cities yesterday appeared likely to shake the American hold on Iraq more than anything since the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's government April 9 last year.

In effect, the militia attacks confronted the American military command with what has been its worst nightmare as it has struggled to pacify Iraq: The spreading of an insurgency that has stretched a force of 130,000 American troops from the minority Sunni community to the majority Shiite population, which is believed to account for about 60 percent of Iraq's population of 25 million.

Privately, senior American officers have said for months that American prospects here would plummet if the insurgency spread into the Shiite community, leaving American and allied troops with no havens except possibly in the Kurdish areas of the north.

Until now, powerful Shiite clerics with large followings in Shiite centers such as Sadr City, with a population of 2 million people, and Najaf and Karbala, sister holy cities about 80 miles south of Baghdad, both with populations of more than a million, have largely avoided pitting private militias against American-led occupation forces. They preferred to challenge the Americans politically. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, considered Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, has urged followers to protest peacefully.

But yesterday, al-Sadr's veiled threats to stir public disorder erupted into carefully orchestrated violence, with potentially dire implications over the long term for the Americans, and for Iraq. In Washington, officials said their concern about Sadr grows daily. "Al-Sistani is playing a not unconstructive role in the politics," said one senior administration official. "It is not clear that what Sadr has in mind is a peaceful democratic future for Iraq."

As reinforcements of American tanks headed toward Sadr City, Kufa and Najaf at nightfall, a senior American officer rushed into a news briefing inside the U.S. headquarters compound in central Baghdad after viewing the events in Kufa and Najaf from one of the American helicopters that hovered over the city during the uprising.

He described the Najaf fighting as "a fairly significant event," but added, "At this point, it's pretty settled down."

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