Fragile Iraq cease-fire appears to crumble

U.S. troops under `heavy, heavy attack' in Kufa

May 31, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A cease-fire between American forces and insurgents loyal to a rebel cleric appeared to be unraveling as fighting erupted yesterday and early today in the centers of the cities of Najaf and Kufa.

Three U.S. soldiers were killed and two others were injured in separate engagements ,the military said today.

Two of the soldiers were killed yesterday near Kufa, where insurgents loyal to the 31-year-old radical cleric Motqada al-Sadr have clashed with U.S. troops.

One soldier died when attackers ambushed a patrol while the other was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his tank.

Meanwhile, one soldier died and two others were injured yesterday when they hit a roadside bomb south of Baghdad, the military reported. The injured soldiers were evacuated to a combat hospital. All of the casualties were from the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division.

Earlier, four Iraqi civilians and three American soldiers were wounded in Najaf, a hospital official and a military spokesman said. A CNN reporter embedded with forces in the area said U.S. soldiers trying to seize an insurgent-controlled police station in Kufa had come under "heavy, heavy attack."

The fighting in Najaf yesterday was the first combat in that city since officials on both sides announced the cease-fire Thursday. Last night's assault by the Americans in Kufa appeared to be a resumption of offensive operations that had been suspended under the terms of the cease-fire between occupation forces and al-Sadr's militia.

Spokesmen for the 1st Armored Division, which is trying to assert control over the area, could not be reached for comment early today.

Prominent Shiite politicians and religious and tribal leaders met in Najaf yesterday to debate what to do about the seemingly intractable problem posed by al-Sadr.

The meeting yesterday took place at the office of Bahar al-Oluum, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and a prominent Shiite cleric. Oluum's spokesman, Ali al-Kuraishi, did not give details of the meeting, saying only that representatives of the occupation forces were also present and that the Shiite leaders hoped to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis. But representatives of al-Sadr have yet to meet with the occupation forces, he added.

The battle in Kufa apparently broke out when U.S. soldiers tried to stage an operation last night to take back a police station. The embedded CNN reporter said U.S. tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled toward the station and engaged in a "very intense firefight."

The fighting in Najaf broke out earlier yesterday near the city's sprawling cemetery, when a patrol of soldiers came under fire from insurgents armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a spokesman for the occupation forces.

Over the weekend, the cease-fire had increasingly come under strain. On Saturday, clashes broke out in Kufa between American forces and insurgents. Fighting had also erupted there Friday. But the violence yesterday was the first time that the cease-fire had been violated in Najaf, a much larger city that is centered around the golden-domed Shrine of Ali.

In announcing the cease-fire agreement, officials on both sides said that al-Sadr had agreed to order his militia, the Mahdi Army, to lay down arms in exchange for the Americans pulling troops from the centers of Najaf and Kufa.

But armed fighters continued to walk the streets of Kufa, flaunting AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Kimmitt said his understanding was that the agreement for the fighters to lay down their weapons applied to both Najaf and Kufa, but he suggested that al-Sadr might have interpreted the agreement as applying only to Najaf. In any case, Kimmitt said at a news conference: "Muqtada's militia is a declared hostile force. Our soldiers have the obligation to take action."

The cease-fire reached in Najaf on Thursday did not require al-Sadr to disband his militia or to submit to an arrest warrant that an Iraqi judge issued in connection with the murder last April of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, an American-backed cleric who had returned from exile to Najaf.

Yesterday, people in the streets of Najaf were handed fliers with al-Sadr's picture that said: "Muqtada was followed by the Iraqi police for his ties to the slaying of Khoei, and due to violent actions he was killed during an attempt to arrest him."

Another flier had a photo of Iraqi policemen and the words: "The Justice Ministry tried to arrest Sadr, but he and his followers resisted fiercely, which drove the Iraqi police to defend themselves." The fliers appeared to have been made by Iraq's Justice Ministry or its allies to be handed out in case Iraqi policemen killed al-Sadr. Somehow, they were distributed prematurely. There were no reports of al-Sadr's death.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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