Sunday, May 9, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. forces stepped up pressure on Shi’ite gunmen loyal to radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, pushing with tanks into the holy city of Kufa and assaulting militia positions in the narrow streets of a Shi’ite enclave in Baghdad. About 30 Iraqis were killed.

Militiamen from Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army attacked police stations and set up checkpoints in the Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City, a heavily populated district in the eastern part of the capital, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said.

U.S. troops moved in and secured two police stations in fighting that killed 18 militiamen, he said.

Earlier, an explosion destroyed shops in a market in the western Biyaa district. Witnesses said the blast occurred when police tried to dismantle two bombs found in vendors’ stalls. Four persons were killed and 17 were wounded, the Health Ministry said. Gen. Kimmitt said three persons were killed.

“Is this the freedom that they want — people cut into pieces?” one man at the market, Fadhil Farid, cried. “What did we do wrong?”

At about the same time, attackers fired on a U.S. patrol in western Baghdad, sparking a firefight that killed three Iraqi police, two civilians and one of the attackers, Gen. Kimmitt said. Fighters attacked another patrol in the center of the capital, wounding two Iraqi policemen.

The U.S. foray into Kufa was the deepest move yet into the city, a Mahdi’s Army stronghold. Several tanks pushed as close as 500 yards from Kufa’s main mosque, trading fire with militiamen on both sides of the main road, witnesses said. Tanks also moved into the neighborhood on the other side of Kufa, trading fire with fighters.

Two civilians were killed and 10, including two children, were wounded in the firefights, hospital officials said. Three houses were destroyed. The tanks pulled out of the city in the afternoon.

“It was the first time the Americans came this far,” said Odai Abdulkarim, 24, a mechanic who has a shop off the highway leading to the Kufa mosque, where Sheik al-Sadr regularly leads Friday prayers. “We are afraid for our families, afraid the rockets would hit our house.”

“Americans don’t hit you if you don’t hit them,” interjected Haidar Abu Zaid, 35, another mechanic. “The Mahdi’s Army fires from our areas, so they have no choice but to fire at them — and we end up getting hurt.”

The U.S. military has vowed to kill or capture Sheik al-Sadr and put down his militia, which has taken control of much of the holy cities of Kufa, Najaf and Karbala, south of the capital. But troops have been hampered by the nearby sites revered by the country’s Shi’ite majority.

Still, U.S. forces have been moving more aggressively against Sheik al-Sadr’s fighters in their strongholds. U.S. troops raided the cleric’s main office in Sadr City on Saturday night, detaining six persons — including one suspected of being an al-Sadr lieutenant and financier, Gen. Kimmitt said.

He vowed that Sheik al-Sadr’s movement would be put down in Sadr City, named after the young cleric’s dead father, a senior ayatollah.

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