- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

12:59 p.m.

BAGHDAD — A suicide car bomber struck a police checkpoint today in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, killing at least 13 people in the spiritual heartland of the militia factions led by radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.

U.S. forces, meanwhile, investigated the “hard landing” of a Black Hawk helicopter north of Baghdad. Military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said the airmen were picked up by rescuers but gave no further details.

At least seven U.S. helicopters have crashed or been forced down by hostile fire in the past month, killing 28 troops and civilians.

A Marine was killed yesterday in fighting in volatile Anbar province, the military said.

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair outlined a plan to withdraw about 1,600 British troops from Iraq in the coming months, and Denmark said it will withdraw its 460-member contingent by August. Lithuania also said it may pull back its 53 troops from the country.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that despite the announced withdrawals, “the coalition remains intact.” In Japan, Vice President Dick Cheney said the U.S. wants to finish its mission in Iraq, then “come home with honor.”

Political tremors grew stronger in Iraq after claims that a Sunni woman was raped while in custody of the Shi’ite-dominated police — a case that threatens to escalate the sectarian friction that drives many of the bombings and attacks across the country.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fired the head of the influential Sunni Endowment, who had called for an international investigation into the rape claims. A statement by Mr. al-Maliki’s office gave no reason for the dismissal of Ahmed Abdul-Ghafour al-Samaraie.

The Najaf blast hit while streets were filled with morning shoppers. At least seven of the victims were police and the rest civilians, authorities said. It was the first large-scale bombing in months in the city, which is heavily guarded by police and Sheik al-Sadr’s powerful Mahdi Army militia. More than 40 people were injured.

On Aug. 10, a suicide attack near the Imam Ali mosque killed at least 35 people and wounded more than 100.

Najaf is a major Shi’ite pilgrim destination for its iconic Imam Ali shrine near the city’s huge cemetery — used as a burial place for Shi’ites throughout the country. It also is headquarters of Shi’ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Sheik al-Sadr, whose militia engaged in heavy fighting with U.S. forces in the area in 2004.


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