Fighting is fierce in Iraq as clashes spread

Posted in Iraq | 08-Apr-04 | Author: Kirk Semple| Source: The New York Times

Ukraninian troops cede Kut to Sadr supporters

Alliance troops in Iraq were locked in the fiercest fighting Wednesday since the fall of Saddam Hussein a year ago, waging a two-front war against Sunni Muslim insurgents west of Baghdad and a fast-spreading Shiite uprising in the south and center of the country.

The U.S. military said marines fired a rocket and dropped a bomb on the compound of a mosque in Falluja, west of Baghdad, during a gun battle with militia members. The attack killed more than two dozen people, news services quoted witnesses as saying. The casualty figure was not confirmed by the U.S. military.

The extent of U.S. casualties in the fighting, which stretched from Nasiriya in the south to Kirkuk in the north, remained unclear, although military spokesmen said 12 U.S. marines died Tuesday in a seven-hour assault by gunmen on a U.S. base in Ramadi, a Sunni-dominated city 115 kilometers, or 70 miles, west of the capital.

Since Sunday, clashes across Iraq have killed more than 20 U.S. troops, a Ukrainian soldier, a Salvadoran soldier and, according to witnesses and hospital officials, scores of Iraqis. Both Bulgarian and Ukrainian troops came under heavy fire.

South of Baghdad, staunch Shiite resistance forced Ukrainian troops to withdraw from Kut, the Defense Ministry in Kiev reported, according to news agencies. The pullout effectively ceded control of the city to supporters of the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who has rallied his followers to drive foreign troops from the country. In Baghdad and southern Iraq, coalition troops have been trying to suppress an uprising inspired by Sadr.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued a stern warning to Sadr on Wednesday and said insurgents would not be permitted to thwart security and reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

Rumsfeld told a news conference in Washington that Sadr would not be allowed ‘‘to get away with murder.’’

‘‘This much is certain,’’ he said. ‘‘Those who oppose the Iraqi people’s transition to self-rule will not be permitted to derail it. U.S. forces are on the offensive.’’

An Iraqi judge has signed a warrant for the arrest of Sadr in connection with the slaying of a rival cleric. But U.S. military commanders and civilian officials have said they plan to move slowly in carrying out any action against Sadr, fearing that his arrest or death could inflame opposition to the occupation.

In a further indication of such opposition, Bulgaria has asked other nations to reinforce its 450-strong battalion in Karbala in the south, Reuters reported.

In Sofia, Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Petkov told reporters, ‘‘I firmly reassert our decision to continue our engagement in Iraq and fight the terror.’’

Coalition troops are facing the bloodiest test of their resolve to put into effect a U.S.-backed blueprint for political transition in Iraq, highlighted by the transfer of sovereignty to an interim government June 30.

This week, U.S. and Iraqi security forces encircled Falluja, a bastion of Sunni resistance 55 kilometers west of Baghdad, and on Tuesday they began to push inward in search of rebels and suspects connected to the killing of four American civilians last week.

On Wednesday, a photographer for The Associated Press saw cars ferrying dead and wounded from the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai Mosque in Falluja. A U.S. military helicopter fired a Hellfire missile at the base of the minaret and an F-16 dropped a bomb on the mosque compound after a six-hour gun battle with militants holed up there, Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne of the U.S. Marines said.

Witnesses said the attack had destroyed part of a wall surrounding the mosque but had not damaged the main building, where worshipers had gathered for afternoon prayers.

The fight began when a marine vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade fired from the mosque, wounding five marines, and a large U.S. force converged on it, Byrne said.

Overnight clashes in Falluja killed 60 Iraqis and wounded more than 130, hospital officials told The Associated Press. Mosque loudspeakers broadcast calls for a holy war against Americans.

Hatem Samir, head of the clinic at Falluja Hospital, said 26 people, including 16 children, were killed during a U.S. airstrike late Tuesday, The AP reported.

The U.S. command was adamant that it would prevail, and Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, a military spokesman, told reporters that the coalition would wipe out Sadr’s militia, the Mahdi Army.

Kimmitt urged Sadr to surrender ‘‘to calm the situation.’’

In Baghdad, a U.S. soldier from the 1st Armored Division was killed Wednesday morning when his convoy was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade near a police station, a spokesman for the U.S. military said.

The military also announced the death of another U.S. soldier on Tuesday in Balad, a Sunni-dominated city north of Baghdad, news agencies reported.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry attributed its decision to withdraw its contingent from Kut, south of Baghdad, to pressure from Shiite militia forces.

‘‘At the request of the Americans, and to preserve the life of our military, the commander of the Ukrainian contingent decided to evacuate the civil administration staff and Ukrainian troops from Kut,’’ the ministry said in a state ment, according to Agence France-Presse.

The ministry said fighting between its troops and militiamen had lasted for about 24 hours and killed several dozen Iraqis and one Ukrainian soldier, the first combat death among Ukrainian troops, the news agency reported.

Ukraine has about 1,650 troops in Iraq that are part of a 9,000-strong Polish-led force deployed south of Baghdad.

The Bulgarian chief of staff, Nikola Kolev, said that its military base had come under sustained machine gun fire Tuesday night but that there were no casualties.

A Bulgarian civilian truck driver was killed south of Nasiriya.

In Karbala, Reuters reported that Polish troops had killed an aide to Sadr during fighting there. The aide, Murtada al-Mussawi, ran Sadr’s Karbala office, an Iraqi police spokesman told the news agency.

Fighting also stretched as far north as Kirkuk, where protesters opposed to the U.S. operation in Falluja were reported to be clashing with U.S. troops.