Soldiers killed, 13 wounded in Iraq

3 U.S.

Marine dies in Fallujah

Baghdad explosion kills 2 searching for illicit arms

April 27, 2004|By Tony Perry and Rick Loomis | Tony Perry and Rick Loomis,LOS ANGELES TIMES

FALLUJAH, Iraq - A fierce firefight yesterday in a rubble-strewn neighborhood of this Sunni Muslim stronghold left one Marine and at least eight insurgents dead, casting a new shadow over prospects for a peaceful solution to the military standoff here.

During the two-hour battle, in which at least eight U.S. troops were wounded, a Marine tank demolished the 150-foot minaret of a mosque, from which machine-gun fire had been raining down on Marines 200 yards away.

Fighting also broke out in the holy Shiite Muslim city of Najaf, where U.S. soldiers clashed with militiamen from the Mahdi Army who have hunkered down in the city for a bloody last stand.

In Baghdad, two U.S. soldiers were killed and five wounded when a chemical plant exploded during an inspection by a team searching for chemical weapons.

The fighting took place a day after U.S. officials said they planned to begin joint neighborhood patrols in Fallujah this week with members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

Since the Marines encircled the city April 5, days after the killing and mutilation of four American civilian contractors here, the situation has seesawed between threats of a full-scale invasion and hopes for a peaceful settlement. A U.S. deadline for Iraqis to hand in heavy weapons expires today.

The fight began around 11:30 a.m. when Marines from Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment of the 1st Marine Division were attacked by 40 to 50 insurgents.

Lt. Col. Gregg Olson, the battalion commander, said the firefight was typical of a city battle - fought at close range, marked by extreme violence, and involving large amounts of ammunition.

The Marine patrol had ventured about 400 yards from the row of abandoned houses that serve as their headquarters. The insurgents attacked with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. The Marines responded by calling in Cobra helicopters firing Hellfire missiles.

The minaret had been used repeatedly in recent weeks as a vantage point for insurgents to fire at Marines. But U.S. authorities have been wary here and in Najaf of the potential adverse reaction from the Iraqi public if American firepower were to damage or destroy Islamic holy sites.

At nightfall in Najaf, residents said a major battle was being fought on a key highway leading to the city by U.S. troops and militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric who has holed up in Najaf and adjacent Kufa.

Sketchy reports of the Najaf battle suggested that U.S. ground troops and helicopter gunships had inflicted heavy casualties on al-Sadr's fighters.

In another development, reports from inside Najaf said that the growing anger of residents there against al-Sadr and his men, who have sown a pattern of lawlessness since their uprising in the city began this month, had taken a startling new turn, with a shadowy group killing at least five militiamen Sunday and yesterday.

These reports, from residents who reached relatives in Baghdad by telephone, said that the killers called themselves the Thulfiqar Army, after a two-bladed sword that Shiite tradition says was used by the patron saint of Shiism, Imam Ali, the martyred son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed.

The group distributed leaflets threatening to kill members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army unless they fled Najaf immediately, according to accounts.

One Najaf resident said some of al-Sadr's militiamen were shedding the black clothing that has been their signature.

If reports of violence against al-Sadr's followers suggested the beginnings of Iraqis taking action to curb the cleric as L. Paul Bremer III, the chief American administrator, has urged, events yesterday in Baghdad underscored how potent a force al-Sadr remains, at least among many young Shiites who have found a release from their impoverishment in the clerics anti-American oratory.

The latest outburst of fury against the Americans in Baghdad came when U.S. troops raiding a chemical storage warehouse were caught in a huge explosion that sent white smoke roiling hundreds of feet into the air and tons of masonry cascading onto a busy street.

The American command said two soldiers were killed and five injured; at least eight Iraqi civilians were hurt. Four Humvees were set on fire.

American military spokesmen withheld details of the cause of the blast. One eyewitness report suggested it was set off by a spark as the troops broke into the warehouse. another possibility was that the Americans, belonging to the Iraq Survey Group, set up to search for illegal weapons, could have stumbled into a trap set when an informant reported that the chemical stores owner and his associates were supplying chemical agents to "terrorists, criminals and insurgents," as a command statement put it.

The explosion set the scene for another frenzied demonstration of anti-American feeling, with young Iraqi men dancing atop the burning Humvees.

Others rushed up to television crews with American helmets and placed one on the head of a donkey; still others ran down the street displaying charred remnants of chemical-weapons clothing pulled from the Humvees, some with shoulder patches bearing the survey group's motto, "Find, exploit, eliminate."

Meanwhile, Iraq's U.S.-picked leaders approved a new flag for the country, dropping the Saddam Hussein-era colors and slogan "God is great" and introducing symbols of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a spokesman said yesterday.

The New York Times and The Boston Globe contributed to this article.

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