U.S. begins Karbala pullback to aid in `political process'

Military defends attack near Syrian border, but says it will investigate


KARBALA, Iraq - After more than a week of intense combat here and amid intensifying scrutiny of military actions throughout the country, U.S. commanders said yesterday that they were withdrawing their troops from the besieged center of this holy city.

In Baghdad, U.S. commanders strongly defended a missile strike near the Syrian border this week that reportedly killed 41 people, saying they believed they had hit a hideaway for foreign fighters and not a wedding party as claimed by Iraqis there.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, said officials would investigate the strike, which happened Wednesday, and why the military's account did not appear to square with television broadcast film reported to be from the scene that showed at least one child dead.

Witnesses have reported that the strike hit several tents after a wedding. But Kimmitt said U.S. soldiers had confiscated rifles, pistols and machine guns, foreign passports, four-wheel-drive vehicles and satellite communications equipment.

These items, he said, "would be inconsistent with a wedding party, for sure, and fairly consistent with what we have seen throughout this country time after time, which is the flow of foreign fighters to come in to terrorize and kill the Iraqi citizens."

Combat with a rebel Shiite militia in Karbala continued yesterday while elements of the Army's 1st Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment began withdrawing from the Mukhaiyam Mosque, which it had used as a forward base.

The pullout, to the Camp Lima outpost about five miles east of the city center, was expected to be completed by early today, when a tank company posted for 24 hours at the mosque was due to leave, said Lt. Col. Garry P. Bishop, the battalion commander.

Bishop said the withdrawal was designed to "allow time for the political process to go forward." He declined to give details on that process, and it was not immediately clear what negotiations were taking place.

U.S. officials have been pressuring the Shiite religious establishment to wrest a surrender from the militia's leader, the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but senior clerics have failed to do so.

Bishop said the withdrawal of forces from the Mukhaiyam Mosque did not amount to a cease-fire. His battalion will continue to run regular patrols into the city, he said, and "will continue to respond to any attacks against Iraqi security forces."

The battles in downtown Karbala, in southern Iraq, are the fiercest in Iraq. City blocks around the Mukhaiyam Mosque have been damaged in the fighting, and combat has been inching closer and closer to two of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, the golden-domed Shrine of Hussein and Shrine of Abbas, dedicated to martyrs related to the Prophet Muhammad.

Iraqi outrage continued yesterday over the U.S. missile strike on the desert camp in the western desert region.

Amid funerals for the victims in Baghdad and in Ramadi, the nearest city to the strike, families denied that the gathering had been anything other than a wedding.

The Associated Press quoted a man identifying himself as Madhi Nawaf as saying that his daughter and at least one grandchild had been killed. "Where are the foreign fighters they claim were hiding there?" he said. "Everything they said is a lie."

But at a time of heightened sensitivity in Iraq over U.S. military actions, Kimmitt said this did not appear to be the case in the attack on Wednesday.

The raid was conducted, he said, on the strength of intelligence on a route, which he called a "rat line," suspected of being used by foreign fighters entering Iraq. "This operation was not something that just fell out of the sky," he told reporters. "We had significant intelligence."

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 789 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared major combat operations in Iraq at an end, 651 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identifications

Army Spc. Marcos O. Nolasco, 34, Chino, Calif.; killed Tuesday in Beiji, in an electrocution accident; assigned to Battery B, 1st Battalion, 33rd Field Artillery, 1st Infantry Division, Bamberg, Germany.

Army Staff Sgt. Joseph P. Garyantes, 34, Rehoboth, Del.; killed Tuesday by sniper fire in Muqdadiyah, while on combat patrol; assigned to B Company, 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, Vilseck, Germany.

Marine Lance Cpl. Bob W. Roberts, 30, Newport, Ore.; died Monday from hostile fire in Anbar province; assigned to 1st Combat Engineer Battalion, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Army Spc. Carl F. Curran, 22, Union City, Pa.; killed Sunday when his vehicle hit an explosive in Karmah; assigned to the National Guard's Battery C, 1st Battalion, 107th Field Artillery Regiment, Oil City, Pa.

Army Spc. Mark J. Kasecky, 20, McKees Rocks, Pa.; killed Sunday when his vehicle hit an explosive in Karmah; assigned to the Army National Guard's Battery C, 1st Battalion, 107th Field Artillery Regiment, Oil City, Pa.

Army Staff Sgt. James W. Harlan, 44, Owensboro, Ky.; killed Friday when a car bomb detonated next to his vehicle at Camp Anaconda; assigned to the Army Reserve's 660th Transportation Company, 88th Regional Readiness Command, Zanesville, Ohio.

Marine Pfc. Brian K. Cutter, 19, Riverside, Calif.; was found unconscious and died yesterday in Asad; assigned to 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Associated Press

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.