- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

KARBALA, Iraq — A joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol enforcing a curfew clashed with gunmen guarding the headquarters of a Shi’ite cleric, setting off a firefight that killed three Americans and 10 Iraqis, including two security officers.

Another American soldier was killed and two were wounded by a roadside bomb near Baghdad, and nine U.S. troops were wounded in a roadside bombing in the northern city of Mosul.

The four deaths made it the deadliest day for American forces in Iraq since Sept. 18, when three soldiers were killed in an ambush. With the latest deaths, the number of U.S. troops who have died by hostile fire since President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1 has climbed to 101.

During a visit yesterday to U.S. troops in Tikrit, Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, commander of the Army’s III Corps, told reporters that American troops would be in Iraq for another troop rotation or even two. At current pace of a turnover of troops every year, that could mean U.S. forces would be in Iraq until 2006.

The bloodshed in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Karbala, about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad, occurred over a 12-hour period. It underscored the danger of trying to disarm militias maintained by Shi’ite clerics who wield considerable influence in Iraq’s largest religious group. The U.S.-led coalition has banned private militias and is committed to disarming them.

The three Americans killed were assigned with the 101st Airborne Division, according to Maj. Mike Escudie of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. Seven Americans were wounded, U.S. officials said.

Eight of the Iraqi gunmen died and up to 18 were wounded in the battle, which started about midnight Thursday and continued intermittently until late yesterday morning.

Pentagon officials said they were investigating how the shooting began. Iraqis insisted the Americans fired first.

U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. George Krivo said the trouble began when a joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol found gunmen in front of a mosque after the nighttime curfew. The 9 p.m. curfew was imposed in Karbala this week after clashes between supporters of rival Shi’ite clerics.

However, gunmen who said they took part in yesterday’s fighting said the battle began outside the house of Ayatollah Mahmoud al-Hassani, less than half a mile from the mosque. The house also served as the ayatollah’s headquarters.

Pentagon officials said Ayatollah al-Hassani’s guards were believed involved in the shooting. The ayatollah’s followers said he and his family were taken to a safe place yesterday morning.

Malik Kazim, who claimed to have participated in the battle, said the fighting involved armored vehicles and Humvees that passed Ayatollah al-Hassani’s headquarters. At least 20 gunmen were guarding the offices.

The U.S.-Iraqi patrol ordered the gunmen to go inside. When they refused, a shootout ensued with intense gunfire, including small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, Mr. Kazim said.

Hours after the fighting ended, Polish troops, who lead a multinational contingent in central Iraq, stationed jeeps and armored cars less than 200 yards from the cleric’s house. At least two Polish snipers could be seen on nearby rooftops. Polish officials said their troops were not involved in the overnight clash.

Most of the violence directed against Americans has come from the minority Sunni Muslim community, which formed the base of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The spread of anti-American violence into the Shi’ite community, which comprises about 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people, would present a grave challenge to the United States as it strives to implement a political program to give Iraq a democratically elected government by the end of next year.

The fall of Saddam’s brutal regime in April gave the Shi’ites political empowerment after centuries on the sidelines.

The Shi’ite rise also has deepened differences among rival Shi’ite factions, with senior clerics vying for influence and prestige.

Although many leading Shi’ite clerics have avoided openly challenging U.S. rule, concern has risen about the activities of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shi’ite cleric whose public hostility to the U.S.-led coalition is considered a threat by Washington.

In a sermon yesterday, Sheik al-Sadr said he was prepared to support the U.S.-chosen Governing Council if L. Paul Bremer, the top American official in Iraq, relinquished his veto over decisions by the council and if the 25-member body represented more parties.

If his demands are met, Sheik al-Sadr said he would withdraw his plan to declare his own rival government. He also called for an independent committee led by a cleric to investigate recent clashes between Shi’ites in Karbala, for which he blamed the Americans.

Despite U.S. opposition to private militias, Shi’ites insist they had no choice but to arm themselves because the coalition cannot guarantee law and order.

Abu Ali, an aide of Ayatollah al-Hassani, said his group took up weapons after the Aug. 29 assassination in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, one of the country’s most prominent Shi’ite clerics. Mr. Ali also spoke of “Wahhabi threats against our master” — a reference to Wahhabi Sunni Muslims, longtime rivals of the Shi’ites.

Coalition authorities agreed to allow senior Shi’ite clerics to maintain a 12-member personal security detail.

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