Sunday, May 16, 2004

BAGHDAD — Fighters loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr drove Italian forces from a base in the southern city of Nasiriyah on yesterday and attacked coalition headquarters there with grenade and mortar fire as tensions in the Shi’ite region escalated. Two U.S. soldiers died elsewhere.

Gunmen also killed three Iraqi women working for the U.S.-led coalition.

Two Iraqi fighters were killed and 20 were wounded in battles in Nasiriyah, mostly at two bridges across the Euphrates River, residents said.

The Italian troops evacuated as their base came under repeated attack. Portuguese police were called out to support the Italians, seeing action for the first time since the force of 128 deployed to Nasiriyah in November, a Portuguese duty officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

At least 10 Italians were wounded, one of them critically, contingent spokesman Lt. Col. Giuseppe Perrone told the Associated Press by phone. He said the Italians relocated to the nearby Tallil air base.

Elsewhere in Nasiriyah, a convoy transporting the Italian official in charge of the city, Barbara Contini, came under attack as it neared the headquarters of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Col. Perrone said. Two Italian paramilitary police were wounded.

Fighting in the southern city began Friday. All but two civilian staffers of the coalition were evacuated from their headquarters in Nasiriyah to a military base because of attacks by Sheik al-Sadr’s fighters. The radical cleric launched an uprising last month and faces an arrest warrant in the killing of a moderate rival cleric last year.

Elsewhere in southern Iraq, assailants in Basra fired a mortar shell that hit a house near a British military base, killing four Iraqi civilians, including 2-year-old twin girls, witnesses said. Four people were wounded. All the victims were related.

Also, gunmen fired on a minibus and detonated explosives in Baghdad yesterday, killing two Iraqi women and the driver, and injuring a third woman. Police said the women were working for the Americans but did not specify their jobs.

Early yesterday, a female Iraqi translator working with U.S. troops was killed and another was critically injured when gunmen broke into their houses in Mahmoudiyah, said Dawood al-Taee, director of the city’s hospital.

One U.S. soldier was killed Saturday night when a bomb exploded beside a vehicle in Baghdad, the Army said yesterday. A second soldier died of wounds suffered during a firefight Saturday south of the capital, the military said.

No further details were released.

The deaths bring to 777 the number of U.S. servicemembers who have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq last year. Of those, 567 died as a result of hostile action.

The coalition is trying to disband Sheik al-Sadr’s army and sideline its radical leadership before handing power to a new Iraqi government. American forces and al-Sadr fighters fought heavy battles in recent days in the southern holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

American tanks yesterday drove through the center of Karbala and exchanged gunfire with insurgents.

Two U.S. tanks were stationed yesterday in a main square in Najaf, while militiamen held positions in the cemetery and other areas.

An explosion in the southern city of Samawah killed at least one Iraqi security force member, and there also was shooting between Iraqi security forces and Sheik al-Sadr’s supporters, Japan’s Kyodo News reported.

Two mortar shells were fired at Dutch soldiers guarding the provincial governor’s building in Samawah, Kyodo said. Japanese soldiers virtually had confined themselves to their base on the southern outskirts of the city because of deteriorating security.

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