Physical, psychological damage assessed after raid on mosque

Early-morning fighting in Kufa kills 32 rebels

May 24, 2004|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KUFA, Iraq - The doors they can fix. But no one is sure how yesterday's raid at a Kufa mosque will play with a local population that has learned to live side by side with rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army fighters.

Less than 12 hours after U.S. forces completed their early-morning sweep at the al-Sahleh mosque - uncovering a weapons cache and killing 32 rebel fighters citywide - civil affairs and psychological operations teams returned to the site to assess the damage and take the city's pulse.

Near Fallujah, a car bomb and rocket-propelled grenade attack killed two U.S. soldiers and injured five in a convoy yesterday, the first such deadly attack since Marines ended a 3 1/2 -week siege last month.

The attack in Fallujah was the only report of U.S. lives lost in fighting yesterday. It brings the unofficial U.S. military death toll to 792 since the invasion in March of last year.

At the mosque in Kufa, there were smashed windows, damaged bathrooms and broken front doors. One of the huge weathered wooden doors was turned on its side to form a barricade. Two others were broken in half and left splintered on hinges.

On stones rubbed smooth by the soles of pilgrims' feet, a 10-foot-long trail of dried blood turned black in the late-afternoon sun. U.S. civil affairs officers say it will cost a few thousand dollars to repair the physical damage.

Other damage may be harder to assess.

"We don't accept this. It is very wrong," said Adel Reda Ismael, 47, a sculptor who was among two dozen neighborhood men who approached U.S. troops at the site yesterday.

Other neighbors said troops shouldn't have attacked the fighters inside the mosque, but most just wanted to be left alone as they tried to absorb the damage to the neighborhood.

In some places in south-central Iraq, the six-week confrontation between the rebel cleric and U.S. troops showed signs of abating. In Karbala, the scene of recent clashes, al-Sadr's militia withdrew from major religious shrines and was replaced by an Iraqi force dressed in civilian clothes.

An Associated Press survey of deaths in the first 12 months of the occupation found that more than 5,000 Iraqis died violently in just Baghdad and three provinces. The toll from criminal and political violence ran drastically higher than violent deaths before the war, according to statistics from morgues.

There are no reliable figures for places such as Fallujah and Najaf, which have seen surges in fighting since early last month.

But the Associated Press survey found 5,558 violent deaths recorded from May 1 of last year to April 30.

Fallujah was mostly quiet this month after U.S. Marines handed responsibility for the city's security to a force that included former officers of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Coalition forces had encircled the city for weeks, launching attacks and searching for those who killed four U.S. civilian security contractors and mutilated their bodies. Yesterday, the U.S. military gave Iraqi police the names of 25 suspects.

Kufa was quiet yesterday afternoon and evening, at least on the surface, with men idling in a cafe and women watching over children at play. There was little traffic, and everyone stopped when a U.S. convoy rolled by.

A two-hour visit to Kufa by a U.S. patrol revealed a city still absorbing the ferocity and noise of the fight early yesterday morning that included an artillery barrage and hundreds of U.S. troops backed by Abrams tanks.

U.S. forces raided one of al-Sadr's strongholds, the city where he has preached each Friday. But they avoided attacking Kufa's main mosque, where it is believed that hard-core rebel fighters are holed up.

Instead, U.S. forces targeted the mosque on the city's north side in a raid led by members of the new Iraqi Counterterrorism Force. Sixteen fighters were killed in and around the mosque. Troops found mortars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and assault rifles with thousands of rounds. They also battled insurgents in another neighborhood.

The United States insists that al-Sadr disarm his militia, but he shows little sign of backing down. In nearby Najaf, his forces retain control of the Imam Ali Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

Lt. Col. Pat White, an Army battalion commander, said there are hundreds of al-Sadr's militiamen inside the shrine. Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey said in a statement that U.S. forces "have no intention of entering the shrine."

U.S. commanders have said that they are trying to set the security conditions for a peaceful resolution of the situation and that they are also trying to pave the way for Iraqis to deal with Sadr, who is not popular with more mainstream Shiite clerics.

The Los Angeles Times and Associated Press contributed to this article. The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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