U.S. troops battle Shiite militants in Kufa, Baghdad

Thursday, June 3, 2004

KUFA, Iraq -- American troops clashed with Shiite militants in this southern city Wednesday -- six days after a truce was supposed to have taken effect. At least five Iraqis were killed and more than 40 were wounded.

Another Iraqi was killed and three others were injured as militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr exchanged fire with American soldiers in Baghdad's Sadr City.

No U.S. casualties were reported in either city.

In Kufa, several Iraqis said they were wounded when mortar rounds struck their neighborhood. They suspected the Shiite militiamen fired the rounds at the Americans but missed.

There have been daily clashes in Kufa since Shiite leaders announced an agreement May 27 by al-Sadr to end a standoff with the Americans here and in nearby Najaf.

Both sides agreed to leave the two cities, which contain some of the most sacred Shiite shrines in Iraq, and U.S. commanders promised to end "offensive operations" there. But U.S forces have insisted on their right to patrol Kufa -- a move the Shiite militia claims is a provocation.

Also in the capital, two car bombs killed at least six people and wounded 33, including five children. It was the third straight day of vehicle bombings in Baghdad, raising fears of more violence ahead of the June 30 transfer of power to Iraqis by the U.S. occupation authority.

West of Baghdad, Sunni Muslim insurgents fired mortars at a police station in a suburb of Fallujah, killing an Iraqi civilian and wounding a U.S. Marine and two other people.

Huge explosions shook the area around the U.S. base near the northern oil city of Kirkuk late Wednesday. Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin, commander of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps in the area, said the blasts came from an ammunition storage site.

Nearly two hours after the initial blast, nearby residents said explosions were continuing every 10 to 15 minutes.

Also Wednesday, three Italian hostages were shown on a video broadcast weeks after they were kidnapped in Iraq. The footage on Al-Jazeera depicted the hostages sitting in chairs and appearing reasonably healthy.

They were among four Italian men working as private guards who were kidnapped April 12. Soon after, the captors executed one, Fabrizio Quattrocchi and issued a videotape of his killing.

Associated Press Television News obtained a video Wednesday showing a Turkish and an Egyptian truck driver also said to have been kidnapped in Iraq. The gunmen said the drivers were delivering supplies from Kuwait to Iraq and were seized because they were working for occupation forces.

Two Polish contractors and five other employees of a construction company were abducted Tuesday near Baghdad, but one of the Poles escaped, said Lt. Col. Robert Strzelecki, a Polish army spokesman.

In Kufa, skirmishes broke out as U.S. tanks and Humvees rolled into the city's center, and terrified civilians fled. Gunfire rattled as Shiite militiamen took positions near the mosque, where recent gunbattles have raged.

Five people were killed in the fighting, hospital sources said. In skirmishes lasting about an hour, two militiamen were injured, fighters said.

Near sunset, several strong explosions and bursts of gunfire resounded through Kufa. Al-Sadr's militiamen crouched behind walls, waiting to see if the Americans would advance.

Two hospitals reported treating 46 wounded although it was unclear how many were fighters and how many were civilians caught in the crossfire.

Malik Ali, 16, lay on a bed wrapped in bandages. Neighbors said he was shot outside his home.

Under the agreement reached between al-Sadr and Shiite leaders, the militiamen were to have withdrawn from Kufa and Najaf and fighters from elsewhere in Iraq were to have gone home.

U.S. forces agreed to stop "offensive operations" but insisted on maintaining security patrols until an Iraqi government force was ready to assume that responsibility.

However, most Iraqi police deserted after the fighting broke out in early April, and a special unit sent from Baghdad last week returned home, ostensibly because of a lack of accommodations.

With the Americans still in the area, the militiamen have made no move to withdraw.

Al-Sadr launched his uprising after coalition authorities closed his newspaper, arrested a top aide and announced an arrest warrant against him in the 2003 murder of a rival cleric. U.S. authorities have insisted that al-Sadr "face justice" and disband his militia.

Shiite leaders have been discussing a proposal calling for the militia to withdraw from the streets over a 72-hour period. In return, American troops would stay away from Shiite holy sites in Najaf and Kufa.

Al-Sadr aide Ahmad al-Shibani said the militia would likely object to the deal because it calls for militants to surrender their weapons and provides for joint patrols by U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police.

Shiite negotiators, frustrated over the lack of progress, blamed coalition forces for a "clear violation" of the cease-fire agreement.

"What's going on now is targeting the people of holy Najaf who have gone out to the streets optimistic," the statement said. "We can only hold you responsible for these actions."

The Shiite team said that since Tuesday evening, U.S. troops attacked mosques in Kufa mosques three times. An industrial neighborhood was also attacked, they said.

There was no comment from U.S. officials, who have repeatedly said they were not a party to any agreement with al-Sadr but had agreed to suspend offensive operations.

One of the Baghdad car bombs exploded in the city's Azimiyah district. Hospital official Nazdar Kadhim said five Iraqis died and 33 were hurt, including five children.

A second vehicle exploded in the Hurriyah district west of the Tigris River, killing one person.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Fisnik Abrashi in Kharma contributed to this report.

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