- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

From combined dispatches

NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. Marines fixed bayonets yesterday to disperse an angry crowd of 10,000 Iraqi Shi’ites in the holy city of Najaf after tempers flared over rumors of U.S. harassment of a radical cleric.

Also yesterday, attackers killed two more American soldiers near Mosul, well to the north of the “Sunni Triangle” where most such attacks have taken place, and gunned down an Iraqi employee of a U.N.-affiliated relief agency.

Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said he was establishing an Iraqi “civil defense force,” or armed militia, of about 6,800 men to help American forces combat the continuing violence.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech yesterday that his government had received a request to provide troops who would be used to relieve U.S. forces in Iraq.

Hurriyet newspaper reported that two U.S. generals who met officials in Ankara on Friday had discussed dispatching up to 10,000 Turkish soldiers to Iraq. The U.S. military did not comment on the report.

The marchers in Najaf dispersed after two hours, but some of the Shi’ite cleric’s supporters warned of an “uprising” in the city if the Americans failed to pull out within three days.

“If they don’t leave, they will face a popular uprising,” said Sayed Razak al-Moussawi, an aide to anti-U.S. cleric Moqtader al-Sadr.

On Friday, Imam al-Sadr called for Iraqis to reject the new U.S.-appointed Governing Council in Baghdad.

Aides to Imam al-Sadr struggled yesterday to restrain his supporters as the Marines halted the march on the U.S. administration office in the dusty and impoverished city 100 miles south of Baghdad.

In heated negotiations with one of Imam al-Sadr’s aides, the U.S. commander in Najaf, Lt. Col. Chris Conlin, denied reports his men had surrounded the cleric’s house on Saturday and warned that his men would respond if threatened.

The passions sparked by the incident signaled problems facing U.S. troops among the long-oppressed Shi’ite majority. Attacks on U.S. troops since the fall of Saddam Hussein have been mostly by Sunni Muslims.

Many protesters were bused into Najaf from Baghdad’s poor Shi’ite bastion, Sadr City. Others rode in on battered pickup trucks and even ambulances. Col. Conlin said he believed Imam al-Sadr had limited support in Najaf, where other, more senior religious figures are based.

Two U.S. soldiers died earlier yesterday when rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire struck their convoy near Tal Afar, a town west of the northern city of Mosul, said military spokesman Cpl. Todd Pruden. Another soldier was injured. All the victims were from the 101st Airborne Division.

The deaths brought to 151 the number of U.S. troops killed in action since the March 19 start of war — four more than during the 1991 Gulf war.

Also yesterday, a U.S. soldier was killed and two others injured when their vehicle crashed and flipped near the international airport in Baghdad, said a statement from U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

The area of the convoy attack near Tal Afar, 240 miles northwest of Baghdad, had been relatively peaceful in recent weeks, and the ambush was a worrying development for American forces trying to bring stability to Iraq.

Most of the recent violence has occurred in an area north and west of Baghdad called the Sunni Triangle, where some support for Saddam remains. Tal Afar lies outside that region.

In another incident, a two-car convoy carrying members of the International Organization for Migration was ambushed near the southern city of Hilla when a pickup truck pulled alongside one car and opened fire.

The car collided with a bus. Personnel in a World Health Organization convoy traveling behind the IOM vehicles treated three injured and took the Iraqi driver to a hospital, where he died, said Omer Mekki, the WHO deputy director in Iraq.

Both convoys were marked clearly as U.N. vehicles.

“We’re a bit shaken. Everybody is a bit shocked,” said Mr. Mekki. “But when we were recruited and we came to Iraq, we knew there were risks. An incident like this is not unexpected.”

Gen. Abizaid said he will establish eight battalions of armed Iraqi militiamen, each with about 850 men, to help maintain security. He said the militiamen will be trained by conventional U.S. forces and are expected to be ready to begin operating within 45 days.

The U.S.-led coalition has begun building what it hopes will be a 40,000-strong military force. On the first day of recruiting Saturday, the coalition processed 5,000 applications at centers in Mosul, Baghdad and the southern city of Basra, the official said.

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