- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

From combined dispatches

AL-SAJR, Iraq — U.S. soldiers backed by rocket-firing helicopters attacked a farmhouse yesterday, killing three Iraqis and wounding three others, villagers said. The U.S. military said soldiers followed guerrillas into this village after a patrol was ambushed.

Afterward, five craters ranging up to 10 feet wide and 3 feet deep could be seen in the courtyard of the farmhouse. A sixth rocket had crashed through the roof. The yard was strewn with broken glass, and one side of the building was pocked with bullet holes.

The fighting in Al-Sajr, a small village west of Baghdad, highlighted the difficulties of combating guerrillas in populated areas.

The U.S. military confirmed a combined air-ground assault took place but said it knew of only one death, that of a guerrilla. A military spokeswoman, Spc. Nicole Thompson, said that after firing on an American patrol, the attackers ran into a building. She said the soldiers then called in air support.

Villagers insisted no one had fired on the Americans. They did say that U.S. soldiers detained three young men during a security sweep Sunday.

Residents said the Americans appeared in the village about 1:30 a.m. yesterday and began firing light weapons. Villagers later heard aircraft approaching.

Soon afterward, six missiles struck the home of Ali Khalaf Muhammad, killing the 45-year-old farmer. Two of Mr. Muhammad’s sons, ages 11 and 9, were wounded.

Villagers said two other men — Saadi Fayad and Salem Ismail — were killed after they rushed to Mr. Muhammad’s assistance.

Al-Sajr, nine miles north of Fallujah, is part of the so-called Sunni Triangle, an area north and west of Baghdad where support for Saddam Hussein runs deepest and where American troops have met their stiffest resistance since the collapse of his regime in April.

During funerals for the three yesterday afternoon, villagers and relatives wept and cursed the Americans.

Meanwhile, U.S. Marines yesterday handed over control of the troubled Iraqi holy city of Najaf to Spanish-led troops, including contingents from Latin America, after resolving a spate of logistical problems.

Marines commander Gen. John Kelly transferred authority to Spanish Gen. Alfredo Cardona, head of the Plus Ultra brigade of Spanish, Salvadoran and Honduran troops at a joint parade in the military headquarters here.

“The Spanish, Salvadorans, and Hondurans are great soldiers and great men of peace,” Gen. Kelly said as Gen. Cardona took control.

Gen. Cardona said his men would work “body and soul” to ensure security and quality of life in the region.

Marines have been withdrawing from the province for several days ahead of the hand-over. From yesterday the holy city of Najaf was being patrolled by some 720 Honduran and Salvadoran troops, assisted by some of the 1,200 Spanish soldiers deployed in the region.

The Latin brigade will take responsibility for one of Iraq’s most sensitive corners, which is still reeling from an Aug. 29 car bombing that killed a revered Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim and 82 other persons at a shrine.

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