- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — British soldiers beat back attacks by militiamen loyal to a radical Shi’ite cleric in southern cities yesterday, and U.S. forces stormed Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s stronghold in Baghdad.

Sheik al-Sadr’s militia launched attacks in Basra and Amarah in an apparent attempt to open up new fronts after another cleric called for a jihad, or holy war, against British troops and promised rewards for the capture of coalition soldiers.

Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli, Sheik al-Sadr’s main representative in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, fired up worshippers during Friday prayers with denunciations of U.S. abuse of prisoners and purported rapes of Iraqi women.

Coalition forces responded to the violence with moves against officials in Sheik al-Sadr’s movement, arresting his main representative in the southern city of Nasiriyah, Sheik Moayad al-Asadi.

U.S. troops backed by armored vehicles and helicopters also stormed Sheik al-Sadr’s office in Baghdad’s Shi’ite district of Sadr City, a militia stronghold, and detained three persons, witnesses said.

The new U.S. commander of Abu Ghraib — the prison near Baghdad at the center of the abuse scandal — blamed the mistreatment of detainees on the previous leadership and vowed “on my honor” that it would not happen again.

“The alleged abuses … appear to be due to leaders and soldiers not following the authorized policy, and lack of leadership and supervision,” Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller told journalists in Baghdad. “We will ensure that we follow our procedures. … It is a matter of honor.”

A U.S. military convoy was attacked on the main highway yesterday near Abu Ghraib, destroying an SUV that burst into flames.

Witnesses said four Westerners were in the car, but no casualties were confirmed.

American troops have been stepping up their crackdown on Sheik al-Sadr in the southern holy cities where his militiamen hold sway — Kufa, Karbala and Najaf. Intensifying skirmishes in the region have killed dozens in the past week, including 23 on Friday.

U.S. troops backed by tanks entered Karbala from two directions yesterday, blocking roads leading to the sacred Imam Hussein Shrine at the city center. Troops traded fire with al-Sadr gunmen, and two armored vehicles were in flames.

The uprising in Basra yesterday was the strongest show of force in days, with hundreds of black-garbed and masked fighters massing on the streets and attacking passing British patrols. At least two Iraqis were killed and four British soldiers wounded, a British military spokesman said.

British troops repelled an attack on the governor’s building and armored vehicles pursued large numbers of gunmen into Basra’s impoverished Hanaya neighborhood. Unable to enter the district’s small alleys, the Britons traded fire with militiamen firing from behind buildings.

British troops in some 50 vehicles surrounded Sheik al-Sadr’s headquarters in an hours-long standoff with militiamen inside. A fierce gunbattle broke out in front of the Iraqi Central Bank, and gunmen seized a key bridge on the main route from the city to points south.

The British Defense Ministry said troops and Iraqi police quelled the uprising and the situation was “under control” by afternoon.

British commanders and Basra’s governor, Wael Abdul-Latif, announced the creation of an Iraqi “rapid-reaction force” to move against any resurgence by Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army fighters.

Fighting in Amarah, 100 miles north of Basra, began when gunmen attacked a military convoy, wounding two British soldiers. Militiamen and British troops exchanged fire across the city, as helicopters hovered.

British troops swept briefly into Sheik al-Sadr’s office, witnesses said, and tanks rumbled down Amarah’s main streets. Witnesses said nine militiamen were killed in the fighting and one child was killed when his house was struck by a projectile.

Coalition forces have moved carefully against Sheik al-Sadr, fearing that an overly aggressive assault in Shi’ite Islam’s holiest cities would outrage Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. Sheik al-Sadr is in his Najaf office, only yards away from the Imam Ali Shrine, surrounded by gunmen.

Instead of a direct assault, U.S. troops have been skirmishing with his fighters in and around Najaf, trying to isolate him. “They are waging a psychological war,” said Sheik Qais al-Khazali, senior al-Sadr spokesman in Najaf. “They are trying to turn it into a prolonged war, a war of attrition.”

Planes dropped leaflets over Najaf last night, telling residents that coalition forces will “continue to work with Iraqis to defeat terrorism” after a new Iraqi government is installed on June 30. “This is the path to a shining future,” the leaflets read.

Elsewhere in Iraq, a Polish soldier was killed when an “improvised boobytrap” exploded as he walked by in a town south of Baghdad, the Polish military said. Another Polish soldier was killed and two were injured when a civilian truck accidentally hit their vehicle in a convoy near Karbala, said Lt. Col. Robert Strzelecki, a spokesman for Polish forces in the area.

Attackers set off a bomb outside the house of a police official in Habhab, 35 miles north of Baghdad. The blast killed two women and a man from the official’s family, doctors said.

Two civilian contractors who were kidnapped a day earlier were freed yesterday by Iraqi police near Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. Their nationality was not announced.

Seven Iraqi prisoners being transported for release were wounded in a roadside bombing against their U.S. military convoy west of Baghdad, the Marines said. One attacker was killed and the other captured.

A U.S. soldier from the Army’s Stryker Brigade was killed in an “electrical accident,” in the northern city of Mosul, the U.S. command said.

The latest death brings to 764 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Of those, 556 died as a result of hostile action and 208 died of other causes.

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