Deadly clashes in southern Iraqi cities

American soldier is killed in mortar attack in north

May 09, 2004|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Urban street fighting took over the southern Iraqi city of Basra yesterday after militia members loyal to an anti-American cleric stormed through the streets and skirmished with British troops.

There were also deadly clashes in the southern city of Amarah and in Karbala, where U.S. tanks entered the city from two directions and blocked roads leading to the city center.

The turbulence in the south was a barometer of the depth of the discontent with the U.S.-led occupation, especially among young and impoverished Iraqis who feel that they have found in firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr someone who will stand up for them against the Americans.

Five troops in the U.S.-led coalition were injured in yesterday's clashes in Basra, and 30 to 40 al-Sadr militia members were wounded or killed, according to a senior coalition official.

On Friday, a Basra cleric connected to al-Sadr offered rewards of up to $300 for the capture or killing of soldiers in the U.S.-led coalition.

The cleric, Sheik Abdul Sattar al Bahadli, who was angered over the abuse of Iraqis at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, also told worshipers at Friday prayers that it was acceptable to kidnap a female soldier and use her as a sex slave.

Coalition forces responded to the violence and fiery remarks by taking action against officials in al-Sadr's movement, arresting his main representative in the southern city of Nasiriyah, Sheik Moayad al-Asadi.

U.S. troops backed by armored vehicles and helicopters also stormed al-Sadr's office in Baghdad's Shiite district of Sadr City, a militia stronghold, and detained three people, witnesses said.

Elsewhere, a U.S. soldier from the 2nd Infantry Division's Stryker Brigade was killed and a soldier from the Army's Task Force Olympia was wounded yesterday in a mortar attack on a coalition base in the northern city of Mosul, the U.S. command said in a statement.

The violence came as United Nations special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi continued discussions with the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council, tribal sheiks and other groups over how to form an interim government to rule the country between June 30, when the United States is scheduled to turn over power, and early next year, when the first elected government is expected to take office.

Brahimi strove to assure council members that the proposal he made last month to the U.N. Security Council did not represent his ideas but "was our reading of what we heard from a very, very large number of Iraqis," he told reporters after a meeting with the Governing Council.

The council's sensitivity to Brahimi's suggestions, which essentially would write them out of the picture, adds to concerns about whether all parties will be able to agree on and appoint a government in the next seven weeks. In his report to the United Nations, Brahimi recommended creating a government consisting of a president with limited powers and a prime minister with two deputies. He also recommended creating a national conference that would play an advisory role.

The arrangement is predicated on the dissolution of the Governing Council and on the implementation of a law that would sharply limit the power of the interim government.

But some Governing Council members wish to retain their power. Others - such as Salama al-Khufaji, an independent Shiite member - worry that without legislative powers, there will be no check on the government or its leadership.

Equally vexing to them, some names of possible Brahimi nominees were broadcast by the news media, leaving them feeling that they would have little say in the choice. Brahimi sought to reassure them that no such decisions had been made, spokesman Ahmed Fawzi said. "People think he's coming with a precooked plan, a list of candidates - that is ... untrue," Fawzi said.

On Brahimi's last visit to Iraq, his movements were restricted by the shaky security situation, which has eased somewhat, though not in the populous south.

In yesterday's fighting in Basra, groups of Mahdi Army fighters set up makeshift blockades of rocks and burning tires. A group of gunmen assaulted the governor's building, and British troops moved in to reinforce the guards and take control of the building.

British armored vehicles pursued large numbers of gunmen, and when they reached the cramped alleys of some of the poorer neighborhoods, the British traded gunfire with the militia members.

Residents kept their children home from school, and many stores in the city were shuttered.

Elsewhere in Iraq, attackers set off a bomb near the police commissioner's home in Baqubah, about 45 minutes northeast of Baghdad, killing three people, including at least one woman. The police commissioner, Muaed Aaid, survived but said, "I am taking my family somewhere else because those insurgents will try again to kill me; they are saying I am a spy."

Near Karbala, one Polish soldier was killed and two others were injured in a road accident.

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