KUFA, Iraq — Defiant Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr led Friday prayers at a Kufa mosque, denouncing U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners while the radical Shi’ite cleric’s militiamen battled American troops in two cities. At least 23 Iraqis died, including six members of one family.
A 2-year-old girl and her cousins, boys ages 4 and 5, were among the dead, killed in a bomb blast as they slept.
The scandal over the mistreatment of prisoners spilled into the confrontation, as a sheik loyal to the cleric offered rewards for capturing coalition troops and said anyone who seizes a female British soldier could keep her as a slave.
U.S. officials have expressed fears that outrage over photos of Iraqis being stripped and humiliated by U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib prison could provoke attacks on American soldiers.
“What sort of freedom and democracy can we expect from you [Americans] when you take such joy in torturing Iraqi prisoners?” Sheik al-Sadr told thousands of worshippers at Kufa’s main mosque, his shoulders draped with a white shroud symbolizing readiness for martyrdom.
“Yes, yes, to freedom. Yes, yes, to independence,” the worshippers chanted. Outside the mosque, members of Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army — at least one carrying an anti-aircraft gun — milled about.
Sheik al-Sadr dismissed apologies from President Bush over the abuse at Abu Ghraib. “I tell this to Bush,” the cleric said. Your statements are not enough. They [the guards] must be punished in kind.”
During a sermon in Basra, Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli displayed documents and photos he said showed three Iraqi women being raped at British-run prisons in Iraq and called for jihad, or holy war, against British troops in the southern city.
Sheik al-Bahadli said $350 would be given to anyone who captures a British soldier and offered $150 for killing one. “Any Iraqi who takes a female soldier can keep her as a slave or gift to himself,” he said. He also offered 25,000 dinars for killing a member of the Iraqi Governing Council — but in the worthless, old Saddam-era dinars, a sign of contempt for U.S.-appointed leaders.
The cleric waved an assault rifle, prompting cries of “jihad” and “God is great” each time he lifted it.
Sheik al-Sadr traveled from his hometown of Najaf to Kufa — six miles away — to lead Friday prayers, despite a crackdown on his militia by American troops in and around Najaf and other southern cities. U.S. commanders suggested they were refraining from moving against Sheik al-Sadr on the Islamic day of prayers, as they have the past three Fridays.
Also yesterday, gunmen killed two journalists from state-run Polish television — a Pole and a dual Algerian-Polish national — as they drove south of Baghdad. A Polish cameraman was wounded.
U.S. troops clashed with the Mahdi’s Army in Najaf and in the holy city of Karbala, 50 miles to the north.
Exchanges of fire were heard in Karbala throughout the day and into the evening. Around the time of noon prayers, heavy fire and explosions could be heard at the al-Sadr headquarters near two holy shrines in the city.
Coalition planes dropped leaflets over Karbala, calling for the Jamiya neighborhood to be evacuated so troops could clear it of militiamen. “These operations will soon be over,” the messages said. “We thank you for your patience.”
Two militiamen and two civilians slain in the fighting were brought to Karbala’s main hospital, and at least 14 persons were wounded.
In Najaf, clashes killed at least 12 al-Sadr gunmen, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the deputy chairman of coalition military operations, said in Baghdad.
Overnight, militiamen fired volleys of mortar shells at the U.S. base in Najaf and at the governor’s building, which was wrested from al-Sadr fighters Thursday. About midnight, U.S. troops opened fire with heavy mortars and artillery, destroying one mortar position.
Yesterday morning, a warplane dropped a 500-pound bomb in a field near another mortar position, destroying it with the shock wave, Gen. Kimmitt said.
He said the mortar position was not hit directly to spare nearby homes.
However, six members of a family, including children ages 2, 4 and 5, were killed and three others were wounded when their home was hit, apparently by American fire, during the midnight mortar clash. At least one militiaman also was killed in the battle.
Aziba al-Issa, 28, was hospitalized along with two of her daughters after their home was hit. Her husband and 2-year-old daughter, as well as her brother-in-law, his wife and their two young sons were killed.
“It was around midnight and we were preparing to go to bed,” Mrs. al-Issa said. “The bomb fell on our room.”
In the northern city of Mosul, a roadside bomb went off near a passing Iraqi police patrol yesterday, killing four policemen.
The military has been treading carefully in its confrontation with Sheik al-Sadr for fear that attacks near Shi’ite holy sites will anger Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.