U.S. troops, al-Sadr fighters clash day after two sides declared truce

Each claims the other shot first, but both vow to honor agreement

May 29, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A day after the declaration of a much-heralded truce between U.S. soldiers and forces loyal to a rebel Shiite cleric, battles broke out in the city of Kufa, killing at least five militiamen. Each side accused the other of shooting first, but both said they intended to honor the truce.

The clashes took place between patrols run by the 1st Armored Division and members of the Mahdi Army, the militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the 31-year-old radical cleric.

Large bands of militiamen armed with AK-47s and heavy weapons, including rocket-propelled grenade launchers, roamed the streets of Kufa and neighboring Najaf. Their numbers grew after the first battles in the morning. Several militiamen said they had the right to take to the streets because they believed that the Americans were trying to seize al-Sadr.

On Thursday, al-Sadr and U.S. and Iraqi officials said the militia had agreed to lay down its weapons as long as the Americans withdrew most of their troops from the center of Kufa and Najaf, which has one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam. Iraqi officials said the Americans had accepted the compromise at the urging of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the most influential cleric in Iraq. The agreement appeared to be a major step toward ending a seven-week uprising ignited by al-Sadr.

But the flare-up of violence yesterday raised doubts about whether the truce would hold. A spokesman for the occupation forces, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, said he suspected that several U.S. soldiers might have been hurt. Reuters, citing a U.S. military spokeswoman, reported that two soldiers were wounded after their Humvee was destroyed by insurgent fire.

Yesterday, for the first time since al-Sadr mounted his uprising, he did not appear at his mosque in Kufa to deliver his weekly sermon, which is typically filled with anti-American invective. He might have been kept away by roadblocks the Americans had set up between Kufa and Najaf, where he lives. An aide to al-Sadr, Jaber al-Khafaji, spoke to thousands of worshipers instead, denouncing the Americans and urging the followers not to remain silent.

Kimmitt said the Kufa clashes "appear to be violations" of the cease-fire agreement. At the same time, the general added, "these are small incidents that don't seem to be endemic. We can't really tell you if these are characteristic of a larger group splitting away from Muqtada or if it's just some of the groups that haven't gotten the word. So we are generally sanguine about what this represents. It could take a couple of days before the true cease-fire that he offered holds, but we'll wait and see and we'll continue to respond as and when necessary."

Sheik Hussam al-Mosawi, a spokesman for the Mahdi Army, said the militia intended to honor the truce. He added that the Americans violated the cease-fire by shooting first. "We shoot back if the Americans start firing," he said.

The agreement reached Thursday appeared to be a major concession to al-Sadr, whom U.S. commanders had said they intended to "kill or capture."

The pact requires militiamen not from Najaf or Kufa to leave those cities, while the other militiamen only have to hide their weapons. The agreement also does not require al-Sadr to surrender himself, though an Iraqi judge had issued an arrest warrant for him in connection with the killing of a U.S.-backed cleric in April last year.

Also yesterday, U.S. authorities released 617 prisoners from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, site of sexual humiliation and abuse of Iraqi inmates by American guards. It was the third and largest mass release of prisoners since the scandal broke last month.

South of Baghdad, gunmen attacked a car carrying two Japanese journalists, causing the vehicle to burst into flames late Thursday. Two bodies found yesterday near the site were identified as Japanese.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 800 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations.

Latest identifications

Army Spc. Alan N. Bean Jr., 22, Bridport, Vt.; died Tuesday in Iskandariyah, Iraq, from a mortar attack; assigned to the Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 86th Field Artillery; Williston, Vt.

Army Sgt. Kevin F. Sheehan, 36, Milton, Vt.; died Tuesday in Iskandariyah, in a mortar attack; assigned to the Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 86th Field Artillery; Williston, Vt.

Army Spc. Beau R. Beaulieu, 20, Lisbon, Maine; died Monday in Taji, Iraq, during a mortar attack on Camp Cooke; assigned to the 27th Main Support Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division; Fort Hood, Texas.

Army Pfc. Owen D. Witt, 20, Sand Springs, Mont.; died Monday in Ad Dawr, Iraq, when his armored vehicle rolled over; assigned to the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division; Schweinfurt, Germany.

Associated Press

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