U.S. troops, militia resume fight

2 Americans killed

Iraqi delegates meet to elect national assembly

August 16, 2004|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NAJAF, Iraq -- A day after peace talks collapsed, U.S. troops and the militia led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resumed fighting yesterday. Two U.S. soldiers were killed, and a wall about 30 yards from the sacred Imam Ali shrine was damaged.

Fighting picked up essentially where it left off before the three-day cease-fire in the vast cemetery and in the Old City. U.S. troops moved to tighten a cordon they set up last week to rein in al-Sadr's militia.

"The Iraqi government has asked us to squeeze them," said Maj. David Holahan, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in Najaf.

One protester was reportedly killed outside the shrine by an explosion yesterday afternoon that broke a hole in a wall near the mosque, witnesses said. Al-Sadr supporters blamed the attack on U.S. tanks firing from the cemetery. Military officials said it was unlikely that they could have caused the damage.

On the streets of Najaf, citizens braced for renewed fighting. Mortar fire and explosions resounded through the day and night.

The Najaf police chief ordered all journalists to leave the city, saying authorities could not guarantee their safety. When some refused to leave, police officers threatened to arrest them.

At a camp just north of Najaf, U.S. military planners met with Iraqi counterparts, including a general in the new Iraqi Army, to discuss ways to give Iraqi security forces a more prominent role in future operations.

"I was impressed by the questions they were asking," said Lt. Col. John Mayer, commander of Marine ground troops in Najaf. "They are absolutely up to the job."

Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told U.S. officials Saturday night that he wanted Iraqi forces to take the lead role, particularly on sensitive missions, such as attempting to remove al-Sadr's militia from the shrine.

U.S. officials are waiting for as many as 3,500 Iraqi troops to join them in Najaf, a logistical challenge that could take a week or more to complete.

"I think they're sending the entire army," said Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment.

As a result, U.S. officials delayed a major offensive they had planned for Saturday night.

Bringing in Iraqi troops was the latest in a string of moves to deal with the standoff. Initially, the United States said it was taking orders from the Najaf governor. Last week, military officials said the United States was taking operational control of all security forces in Najaf. Now the United States says it will provide support and backup to the Iraqi army.

"Everything we are doing, we are doing with the Iraqis," said Maj. Gen. Pete Chiarelli, commander of the 1st Cavalry, during a visit to Najaf yesterday. "It makes perfect sense, particularly in this situation."

The standoff with al-Sadr is quickly shaping up to be a litmus test for Allawi's new government. Already violence has spread from Najaf to other southern Iraqi cities, and the issue was a key point of contention at a political conference yesterday in Baghdad to elect a national assembly.

Putting Iraqis at the forefront might address some of the political sensitivities, but military leaders worry the delay will give al-Sadr's militia an opportunity to regroup.

Despite persistent violence in the country yesterday, many delegates at the opening of Iraq's National Conference held out hope that this first fragile taste of democracy would succeed.

The three-day conference is an unprecedented forum for Iraqis of all ethnic and religious groups to discuss their visions for the future of this country, which is struggling with a Sunni insurgency, a renewed uprising by Shiite militants and constant sabotage attacks on its reconstruction efforts.

The gathering was held under intense security precautions in the fortified Green Zone enclave in Baghdad. The delegates were all frisked for weapons.

Despite the precautions, explosions shook the conference hall. A mortar barrage rammed a commuter bus station nearby, killing two people and wounding 17 others, the Health Ministry said.

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

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