NAJAF, Iraq—U.S. Marines accidentally strayed down a road near a house where Muqtada al-Sadr was visiting and weren't trying to arrest the radical cleric when they got into an hours-long firefight with his supporters Monday, a Marine officer said Tuesday.
"Until we learn the side streets, we won't know where Sadr lives. And until we do, we'll run into things," said 1st Lt. Mike Wyrsch of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The unit took command of the area only on Saturday.
Najaf appeared to have returned to what passes for normalcy here Tuesday, with al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia members toting AK-47 assault rifles as they walked the streets, but with no sign of conflict between them and the Marines. Neither side seemed willing to break the fragile truce that stopped fighting that had raged since April through much of southern Iraq and parts of Baghdad.
But police at checkpoints outside Najaf were tense, thoroughly checking cars for weapons after reports that 18 policemen in Najaf were abducted during the past several days, possibly as bargaining chips for the release of al-Sadr followers. A Knight Ridder reporter was detained by police for about an hour and a half and questioned repeatedly about his identity and purpose for being in the city.
Raad al Kadhami, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad, said that while Mahdi members "arrested" Iraqi police and national guard members in June, they let them go within a day and "there's no such thing happening in Najaf now."
Ahmed Sheybani, al-Sadr's spokesman in Najaf, said that while the Shiite Muslim cleric issued an order forbidding his men from retaliating, he doesn't believe that the presence of U.S. troops at his doorstep Monday was a mistake.
"They passed the barriers, surrounded the house and tried to enter," Sheybani said. "The occupation forces do not want to keep the truce."
The Marines have steadfastly denied that the incident was linked to any sort of raid.
There's an outstanding warrant for al-Sadr's arrest in connection with the killing of a rival cleric last year, but the interim Iraqi government has shown little enthusiasm for executing it.
The incident, however, points to ongoing danger caused by al-Sadr's militia operating openly in Najaf and other cities and effectively controlling much of the area.
A wounded Mahdi Army member said Tuesday that neighbors quickly came to al-Sadr's defense when the Marines showed up Monday.
"The neighbors began to support us and shoot down from the rooftops," said Ahmed Monsour as he lay with shrapnel in his leg and back in a makeshift medical ward bed in the library of an Islamic college. "The American soldiers were surrounded."
U.S. officials weren't immediately available for comment.
There was no break in daily violence elsewhere.
In Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed an Iraqi police commander and wounded two policemen accompanying him.
North of the capital, in Baqouba, a car bomb detonated at an Iraqi national guard checkpoint, killing four Iraqi soldiers and wounding six, Iraqi officials said. U.S. officials put the totals at three dead and four wounded.
The American military also reported that two soldiers were killed and two wounded in a roadside bombing late Monday night, and a Marine died Tuesday after being hurt in fighting the day before in Anbar province, to the west of Baghdad. At least 920 U.S. service members have died since military operations began in Iraq.
(Lasseter reported from Najaf; Hannah, from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+SADR