- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

KARBALA, Iraq — Heavy gunfire and huge explosions rumbled through this Shi’ite city yesterday as fighters loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr battled American forces despite losing a main base at a mosque.

Blasts also were heard in Najaf, where Sheik al-Sadr’s Shi’ite militiamen also face American troops. U.S. forces are trying to disband the cleric’s army and sideline its radical leadership before handing power to a new Iraqi government on June 30.

In central Iraq, roadside bombs killed a Marine in the Fallujah area. U.S. authorities also said a soldier and a Marine died Wednesday of wounds in Sunni-dominated areas.

The violence persists despite a deal last month to end the three-week siege of Fallujah. Under the agreement, U.S. Marines withdrew and an Iraqi force led by a former commander in Saddam Hussein’s army took responsibility for the city’s security.

Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army became a major problem for the United States in April, when his fighters swept across the Shi’ite heartland south of Baghdad, capturing police stations and government buildings.

The militiamen, whose base in Karbala’s Mukhaiyam mosque was partly destroyed by U.S. forces on Wednesday, regrouped yesterday in alleys north of the city’s premier Imam Hussein shrine, one of the most sacred sites for Shi’ites. Thick smoke drifted over its golden dome.

Fighting also raged near the city’s Imam Abbas shrine. American forces are concerned that any damage to the two shrines could enrage Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population as the United States tries to stabilize the country.

Muslim clerics and political leaders in Karbala named Shakir Abdul-Amir, a former major general in Saddam’s army, to mediate an end to the fighting.

U.S. officials have said they would welcome any Iraqi bid to resolve the conflict with Sheik al-Sadr peacefully, but there was no indication the fiery young cleric was willing to accept Mr. Abdul-Amir.

Muhammad Hussein al-Hakim, son of one of the four top Shi’ite clerics in Najaf, suggested the religious leadership has done all it can to mediate.

“The marjaiyah [religious leadership] has not offered a solution because it knows that the parties involved will not implement the wise, calculated and religiously sound solution. That is for all armed groups to leave the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala,” he said at his home.

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