BAGHDAD, Iraq—Two U.S. soldiers were killed and three were wounded late Thursday when they were ambushed in a Baghdad slum where a suicide car bombing hours earlier at a police station had killed at least eight people and wounded more than 30.
A military spokesman said the soldiers were killed during a 15-minute gun battle after being lured from their vehicles by a request for humanitarian assistance around 8 p.m. Thursday in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum populated mostly by poor Shiite Muslims.
But numerous residents who say they witnessed the shootout said it took place during what appeared to be an attempted raid on the offices of Muqtada al Sadr, a radical young cleric who has called on his followers to resist occupation troops and the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council.
Lt. Col. George Krivo, a coalition military spokesman, disputed that version of events.
"A group of people met with U.S. forces and said, `Please come in. We need to show you something important,' " Krivo said.
Three Iraqis were killed and eight were wounded in the battle, said Sheik Akil al Timymi, a cleric. On Friday, residents were erecting a large tent for funeral services.
The incident was the latest in a week of sporadic clashes between American soldiers and Sadr's followers. It underscores a rising militancy among some Shiite elements that, if left unchecked, could seriously undermine security and reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people, generally welcomed the U.S.-British invasion, having suffered years of repression and persecution under deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's mostly Sunni Muslim regime. They enjoy new political and religious freedoms, and they make up a majority on the Governing Council. At the same time, a serious power struggle appears to be under way between Shiite factions who favor an Islamic state and those who want a more secular form of government.
Senior coalition officials dismiss the confrontations with Sadr's followers as a brazen bid by the cleric for power. Sadr, who many Iraqis believe favors a theocracy similar to neighboring Iran's, doesn't represent the majority of Shiites, but has a significant following in Baghdad.
The gun battle involved a squad of nine to 12 soldiers from the Army's 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Krivo said. Once the soldiers left their Humvees, they were attacked by a mob that fired on them with AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised bombs, Krivo said. A reaction force of tanks and other armored vehicles arrived quickly and rescued the soldiers in an operation that lasted about two hours.
Ahmed Hadi, 29, said he was at a soda shop across the street when three Humvees arrived outside Sadr's offices. A rumor began to spread that the soldiers had come to arrest Sheik Quyss al Khazali, a top Sadr lieutenant. Armed men arrived amid the confusion, and after an American soldier fired warning shots, a gun battle ensued.
Hadi said he ran, but was hit by a bullet in the lower abdomen.
Residents of the neighborhood where the ambush occurred say it used to be one of the safest in Baghdad for U.S. soldiers. But that good will was seriously damaged two months ago when American helicopter crewmen tried to tear down a religious banner from a telecommunications tower and a shootout ensued. Relations between the Americans and Iraqi Shiites further were damaged in August when a massive car bomb outside a holy shrine in Najaf, 90 miles south of Baghdad, killed Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim, a leading Shiite cleric, and 78 other people.
Tensions in Baghdad between U.S. soldiers and Sadr's followers have been particularly high since the arrest earlier this week of Sheik Moayed al Khazraji, a Sadr ally whom U.S. forces accuse of hoarding weapons in his mosque. Since Hakim's assassination, Shiite militiamen have patrolled around some Shiite mosques in Baghdad and other cities, a violation of coalition policy banning armed militias. Coalition soldiers have disarmed some groups in Najaf, but the problem was allowed to fester in Baghdad, and in recent weeks it's been clear that a larger confrontation was coming.
More than 5,000 Shiites marched on coalition headquarters Wednesday threatening violence against coalition forces if Khazraji weren't released. A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Khazraji remained in custody while the allegations against him were investigated. High-level discussions are under way between Shiite leaders and coalition officials.
The bombing of the police station in Sadr City further enraged residents. By late Thursday afternoon, armed men were patrolling the streets. Many blamed American soldiers for the bombing.
Timymi said clerics had warned U.S. soldiers to stay out of the area.
"You know, the American forces are trying to tease people, and they make the conditions hopeless here," Timymi said. "So when they surrounded this office, this was something unacceptable to the people."
Timymi said the only way U.S. troops could avoid similar incidents was to let the people of Sadr City control their own affairs.
"We asked them to leave and never return to our city, but they didn't hear that," he said.
Coalition officials say patrols in the area will continue.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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