- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2004

BAGHDAD — U.S. forces massed on the outskirts of Najaf yesterday as part of a campaign to capture anti-American Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr dead or alive.

In the Sunni city of Fallujah, rebels brought down a U.S. helicopter and opened fire on Marines, killing one as they rescued the craft’s injured crew. Also, more foreigners were kidnapped, including a French journalist, bringing the total to more than 40 this month.

Meanwhile, a U.S. State Department official said yesterday that four bodies have been found in Iraq. The bodies might be those of private contractors missing since an assault on their convoy outside Baghdad amid a wave of kidnappings of foreigners.

“We have consolidated north of Najaf and are preparing for combat operations,” said Maj. Gen. John R.S. Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division.

In one clash, U.S. forces pursued armed supporters of Sheik al-Sadr, Gen. Batiste said. Several supporters were killed.



The Shi’ite cleric, who is in Najaf and controls a militia of about 30,000, has urged Iraqis to fight the Americans and wants to make Iraq an Islamic state like Iran.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq has vowed to “capture or kill” Sheik al-Sadr, prompting warnings from some Iraqis that the predominantly Shi’ite south will erupt in fighting worse than the battles in Fallujah and Ramadi in the so-called Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad.

France told its citizens yesterday to leave Iraq. A Russian company ordered hundreds of its workers home.

In a Baghdad neighborhood, posters threatening to kill U.S. soldiers were put up.

The flier, in English and featuring a blown-up Humvee, read: “Take this advice: Quit and go home safely while you are still alive.”

About 2,500 U.S. troops, backed by tanks and artillery, are stationed outside Najaf, about the number as those who fought in Fallujah last week in response to the murder-mutilation of four American civilians days earlier.

Overnight, gunmen and roadside bombs ambushed the 80-vehicle convoy of troops heading to Najaf, killing one soldier and wounding two others and an American contractor.

Sheik al-Sadr, 30, made a rare outdoor appearance yesterday, returning to his office from prayers at the nearby Imam Ali shrine, the city’s main holy site. His office is less than a stone’s throw from the shrine — meaning that any U.S. assault against him there could turn explosive if the shrine is damaged.

Also appearing on a Lebanese TV channel, Sheik al-Sadr responded defiantly to the troop buildup, warning, “My murder will not end the struggle of the Iraqi people against the U.S.A.”

Iraqi politicians and ayatollahs tried to mediate between the radical cleric and the military. U.S. commanders vowed to kill or capture Sheik al-Sadr, though officials suggested that they would give negotiations a chance, the Associated Press reported.

“The target is not Najaf. The target is Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy head of U.S. military operations in Iraq. “We will hunt him down and destroy him. We would prefer it not in Najaf or Karbala. We have very great respect for the shrines, for the Shi’ites.”

Iraqi leaders began hurried negotiations during the weekend, apparently at the instigation of the country’s most powerful Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. A mediator met yesterday for the second day with Sheik al-Sadr’s representatives.

Ayatollah al-Sistani’s son and the sons of two other grand ayatollahs met the cleric Monday night and assured him of their opposition to any U.S. strike on Najaf.

April is quickly becoming the deadliest month since the Iraq war began in March last year, with at least 82 U.S. troops reported killed in action. The deadliest month until now had been November, when 82 died. A Marine and a U.S. soldier were killed yesterday. It was not clear whether they were included in the 82 counted by the Pentagon.

About 880 Iraqis have been killed this month, according to an AP count based on statements by Iraqi hospital officials, U.S. military and Iraqi police. Among those are more than 600 — mostly civilians — killed in Fallujah, according to the city hospital’s director.

Meanwhile, more foreigners were reported abducted, continuing the wave of kidnappings that began last week.

A French journalist was kidnapped, his country’s Foreign Ministry said, and four Italians working as private guards were missing and feared abducted.

The kidnappings have chilled foreign aid, media and contracting agencies working in Iraq. An AP tally shows that 22 were being held, including three Japanese whose captors have threatened execution. At least 35 persons had been taken hostage and released. Nine Americans, including two soldiers, were missing.

Dan Senor, the spokesman for the U.S.-led administration, said yesterday that 40 hostages from 12 countries were being held by insurgents. He said the FBI is investigating.

A truce largely has held in Fallujah since Sunday, despite sporadic clashes. A Marine was killed by mortar fire yesterday, Gen. Kimmitt said. Outside the city, an MH-53 Pave Low helicopter — used to ferry special operations soldiers — was hit by ground fire and forced to land, injuring three crewmen.

Mr. Senor blamed foreign fighters for the insurgency in Fallujah and suggested that Abu Musaab Zarqawi, the most wanted foreign Islamic militant in Iraq, may be in the city.

“The problem here is with foreign fighters, international terrorists, people like Zarqawi who we believe to be in Fallujah or nearby,” he said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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