- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — U.S. soldiers and insurgents loyal to Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr battled for the eighth straight day in Kufa yesterday. At least six Iraqis were killed and 11 were injured, hospital and militia officials said. Three U.S. soldiers were wounded.

The latest clash took place when U.S. forces swept into a neighborhood near the Kufa mosque just after dawn, looking for fighters who had fired mortar shells at a U.S. base from near a girls’ school.

After driving off Sheik al-Sadr’s militia, troops found a cache of weapons, including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles.

In nearby Najaf, gunfire and explosions also erupted as U.S. forces battled Shi’ite militiamen, sending hundreds of people fleeing the city-center streets.

Fighters loyal to Sheik al-Sadr have been battling U.S. troops around Najaf for weeks, but after a tentative truce agreement last week, the streets of the city were crowded with shoppers ahead of the weekend.

As the violence began again, shopkeepers hurriedly closed up and panicked women and children raced from the area.

Witnesses said the fighting began when two U.S. tanks advanced toward Najaf’s cemetery, where some militia fighters are still dug in.

There was an exchange of fire for about a half-hour. Later, the tanks withdrew, and residents returned to Najaf’s streets.

The fighting broke out as Sheik al-Sadr met leading Shi’ite politicians, including former Governing Council member Ahmed Chalabi, for talks in Najaf on ending violence in the city.

Sheik al-Sadr announced a week ago that he would withdraw his militiamen from Najaf and the nearby town of Kufa, and in return, the U.S. military said it would suspend offensive operations.

But the truce has failed to take hold, and there have been frequent skirmishes, particularly in Kufa.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite religious leaders have been highly critical of Sheik al-Sadr for fighting in holy cities — but also have said the U.S. military response was heavy-handed.

Washington is keen to resolve the standoff ahead of the formal turnover of sovereignty to an Iraqi government at the end of this month.

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