Street clashes continue in Najaf

Bursts of gunfire reported in holy city as leadership circulates peace proposal

May 13, 2004|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Gunfire erupted in the Shiite holy city of Najaf early today as clerics, civic authorities and tribal leaders vowed to present a proposed peace plan to U.S. occupation authorities in the coming days.

Militiamen loyal to militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were seen in the streets after midnight headed toward the gold-domed shrine of Ali, a major Shiite Muslim site. Residents said U.S. troops were moving deeper into the city, which is largely in the control of al-Sadr's militia, known as the Mahdi Army. Flares lighted the night.

A U.S. military spokesman could not confirm any advance into the center of Najaf. Several thousand U.S. soldiers are massed mostly on the city's outskirts; commanders have vowed troops would stay away from holy sites.

In Karbala, a Shiite shrine city about 50 miles to the north that was the scene of intense fighting yesterday, the Associated Press reported that intermittent gunfire could be heard as al-Sadr's militia clashed with U.S. troops.

A fierce U.S. advance early yesterday routed the black-clad Shiite militiamen from their positions in Mukhaiyam, a large complex in the city that includes a mosque and other buildings.

U.S. officials said the mosque was targeted because it had become a militia command center and weapons storage site. Once the fighting subsided, soldiers searching the heavily damaged mosque complex found "extensive weapons caches," said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, chief spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition.

Television footage from Karbala showed smoke rising from heavily damaged buildings and U.S. helicopters passed near the city's two most revered sites, the shrines of Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein.

Twenty-two militiamen were killed in the fighting in Karbala late Tuesday and yesterday, Kimmitt said. Six U.S. soldiers were wounded, but four were to return to duty.

In Baghdad, a bomb exploded beside a U.S. military convoy, killing one U.S. soldier and injuring another, the U.S. military said today.

The name of the soldier who died in the attack yesterday was withheld pending notification of his family, the AP reported.

A total of 774 U.S. service members have died in Iraq since the beginning of military operations last year. Of those, 564 died as a result of hostile action and 210 died of non-hostile causes.

The unequal toll in Karbala reflects the one-sided nature of the fighting since U.S. forces first engaged al-Sadr's militia last month. Scores of ill-trained militiamen have been killed, while U.S. forces have suffered relatively light casualties. The young Shiite fighters - many recruited from the ranks of the urban unemployed - are armed largely with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. U.S. forces confront them with tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

Clerics and civic leaders were circulating a proposed peace plan that they said had the blessing of al-Sadr and Najaf's moderate Shiite leadership. The accord would seek to end the standoff by transforming the Mahdi Army into a political organization and by referring a criminal case against al-Sadr to religious authorities. The outspoken young cleric is wanted in connection with the murder of a fellow Shiite cleric last year.

U.S. commanders have said they welcome any peace initiatives. But coalition officials continue to insist that al-Sadr face justice within the Iraqi legal system and that his militia be disarmed.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 773 U.S. service members had died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1 last year, when President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq at an end, 635 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identifications

Army Spc. Kyle A. Brinlee, 21, Pryor, Okla.; killed Tuesday by an explosive near Fallujah; assigned to Detachment 1, Company B, 120th Combat Engineer Battalion, Oklahoma National Guard; Pryor, Okla.

Army Pfc. Andrew L. Tuazon, 21, Chesapeake, Va.; killed Monday by hostile fire in Mosul; assigned to the 293rd Military Police Company, 3rd Military Police Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division; Fort Stewart, Ga.

Associated Press

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