American troops respond to widening Shiite rebellion

With tanks, helicopters, forces battle militants in Najaf, Baghdad Sadr City

August 07, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. forces backed by tanks and helicopter gunships battled yesterday to contain a widening Shiite rebellion, pushing deep into the holy city of Najaf and encircling the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.

U.S. commanders in Najaf said they had killed 300 members of the rebel militia loyal to renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr since fighting flared there Thursday. But the figure could not be independently confirmed, and a spokesman for al-Sadr said the toll was 36.

Two Marines were killed Thursday, U.S. officials said, bringing to three the number of U.S. deaths in the worst fighting in more than two months. An additional 28 have been wounded, 16 in Sadr City and 12 in Najaf, the military said.

The fighting in Baghdad killed 20 Iraqis and wounded 114, according to Iraqi Health Ministry officials, while six others were killed in clashes between rebel forces and Italian troops in Nasiriyah.

Rebels also clashed with British troops in Basra and Amarah, as what appeared to be a new Shiite rebellion against U.S. forces and the new Iraqi government threatened to spread throughout the Shiite south.

At Forward Operating Base Duke, the desert headquarters of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit fighting in nearby Najaf, commanders said they were moving to flush out rebel fighters from a cemetery and from positions deep inside the city around the gold-domed Imam Ali mosque, Shiite Islam's holiest shrine.

"Things kind of escalated on us in the past 24, 36 hours," said Lt. Col. Gary Johnston, operations officer for the force. "We were attacked, we fought back and we pushed in."

Initial estimates put the number of militiamen in the city at 150, but as the fighting intensified, that was revised upward to more than 2,000, said Col. Anthony Haslam, the unit's commanding officer.

Mahdi Army fighters, who are loyal to al-Sadr, had apparently been consolidating their positions through the week, he said. Reinforcements began pouring into the city over the past two days, arriving in buses from Sadr City and elsewhere in Iraq.

The militia, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, appears to have new weapons and plenty of them, Haslam said.

"The resistance we've seen these past couple of days is a lot higher than normal. It seems like it's coordinated," he said.

The return in strength of the rebel Shiite militia to the battleground comes as a blow to previous U.S. assessments that the militia's fighting capacity had been eroded by seven weeks of fighting in Najaf last spring. Then, U.S. forces said they killed hundreds of rebel fighters, reducing the militia's strength from 2,500 to fewer than 500.

But al-Sadr officials always disputed the U.S. statements, saying they lost no more than 80 men in the uprising.

Haslam and Johnston estimated the number of militia dead in the past two days at 300.

An al-Sadr representative in Baghdad, Raed al-Khadami, said 36 Mahdi Army fighters had been killed across Iraq over the two days of fighting.

As the fighting in Najaf inched closer to the heart of the city, the respected Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani arrived in London to receive medical treatment for a heart ailment. It wasn't clear when he had left his Najaf residence, a few blocks from the offices of al-Sadr, the rebel cleric.

But many Iraqis speculated that al-Sistani, a moderate who tries to remain aloof from politics, was spirited out of Iraq to escape the worsening violence.

As Iraq's most respected Shiite religious leader, the aged ayatollah has played a part in cooling tensions in the city in the past. It was his proposal in May that both U.S. forces and the rebel militia should leave Najaf that formed the basis of the cease-fire that ended seven weeks of fighting.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Killed in Iraq

As of yesterday, 922 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 784 U.S. soldiers have died.

Latest identifications

Marine Cpl. Dean P. Pratt, 22, Stevensville, Mont.; died Monday in an attack in Anbar province; assigned to 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Elia P. Fontecchio, 30, Milford, Mass., died Wednesday in an attack in Anbar province; assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.

Marine Lance Cpl. Joseph L. Nice, 19, Nicoma Park, Okla., died Wednesday in an attack in Anbar province; assigned to 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif.

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