BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the worst outbreak of Shiite resistance to the year-old U.S. occupation of Iraq, thousands of followers of a radical cleric staged protests and fought gunbattles Sunday with coalition troops from the slums of Baghdad to the holy city of Najaf.
As firefights besieged coalition forces, U.S. commanders sent Air Force fighter jets and Army Apache helicopters to shore up a small Spanish battalion in the south and sent aircraft and armor into a Shiite slum in Baghdad to retake a police station that gunmen had overrun.
Eight American soldiers and an ally Salvadoran soldier were killed in the daylong violent confrontations, as were at least 20 Shiite followers of the firebrand 30-year-old cleric, Sheik Muqtada Sadr.
"Yes, yes Muqtada," and "No, no America," Sadr supporters shouted in demonstrations that broke out just after dawn around Baghdad's Green Zone.
Coming nearly a year to the day since Baghdad fell, the violence was significant both for who took up arms against the Americans and their allies and for its scope—spanning more than 300 miles from the capital through the sacred Shiite heartland and the port city of Basra.
The gunmen fighting Sunday were Shiites, a long-suppressed majority in Iraq who got the freedom to organize once the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's brutal Baath Party regime. Earlier U.S.-resistance firefights were predominantly in central Iraqi areas, around Tikrit and Fallujah, Sunni Arab areas thought to be pro-Saddam Baathists strongholds.
"This was combat operations today," said a senior coalition military official late Sunday as the fighting still raged on the southern outskirts of Baghdad. Aircraft were brought in, he said, because "we needed to add some combat power to change the terms of the battle." The official spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
The political side of the coalition tried to put a good face on the day.
"These incidents are not insignificant," said Coalition senior advisor Dan Senor. But, "the majority of Iraqis are working with us." He characterized Sunday's fighters as "isolated pockets" and "a miniscule percentage" of Iraq's 26 million people.
Both sides, however, reported fierce firefights, starting about noon and stretching late into the night. Black-clad Sadr followers opened fire with machine guns, small arms and rocket-propelled grenades on a Spanish garrison called Camp Golf, near Najaf. So the United States sent in air support, to swoop over and menace the combatants, but not drop munitions. An American soldier and a coalition soldier from El Salvador were killed, Spain announced, and 12 more Salvadorans were wounded.
Word then spread to Baghdad's Shiite slums, where rioters rushed a police station and chased out seven or eight new, U.S.-trained police recruits. Witnesses said U.S. tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled inside to stop them from taking more police stations and government buildings—and were likewise met with grenades and gunfire. Seven U.S. soldiers were killed and 24 more wounded.
Anti-American protests also turned ugly in Basra where, the Arabic news channel al Jazeera reported, Sadr supporters battled British troops in smaller clashes.
The gunbattles opened a new front against the U.S.-led coalition, coming four days after the murders and mutilations of four American security workers in Sunni Fallujah. Two more Marines were reported killed on Sunday in the Fallujah area, where a newly arrived Marine Division is preparing a counter-offensive to catch the contractors' killers as promised by U.S. Administrator L. Paul Bremer.
Bremer only briefly noted the Shiite violence with disgust in a ceremony introducing a new U.S. handpicked chief of Iraqi intelligence, modeled after the CIA, and a first-ever civilian Iraqi Defense Minister, who will preside over a Pentagon-like organization.
"A group of people in Najaf have crossed the line, and they have moved to violence," Bremer said. "This will not be tolerated by the coalition. This will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people."
Coalition officials, speaking on background, began characterizing Sadr on Sunday as a terrorist, noting that he had recently used a prayer sermon to express sympathy for Hamas and Hezbollah, the militant anti-American, anti-Israel movements based in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.
Before the weekend unrest, Sadr loyalists had marched in peaceful protest for nearly a week against Bremer's order to close the Al Hawsa newspaper, seen as a Sadr mouthpiece, on grounds it incited violence.
Sadr himself was absent from the battles. He spoke through a Baghdad cleric, who reported that Sadr was holed up in a mosque in his hometown, Kufa, 90 miles south of Baghdad, on a hunger strike until the U.S. reopened the newspaper and freed an unspecified number of prisoners.
"These are the orders from Sayid Muqtada Sadr: `Scare your enemy,'" Sayid Hazem al Araqi said in a telephone interview broadcast on Arab radio and television. "We haven't gotten anything out of these protests."
The unrest began Saturday when coalition troops arrested a Sadr sidekick, Sheik Mustafa Yaakobi, on suspicion in the April 10, 2002, slaying of pro-Western, Shiite Ayatollah Abdul Majid al Khoei. Rivals stabbed and shot Khoei, 40, in a Najaf shrine just days after returning from years of exile to a U.S.-liberated Iraq with $13 million from the U.S. government.
U.S. forces plan to turn Yaakobi over to newly reformed Iraqi courts for charges and trial, a senior coalition official said on condition he not be identified. In all, he said, the coalition has captured 13 suspects since the late-night killing spree inside the Grand Imam Ali Mosque that killed Khoei and 24 other Iraqi Shiite leaders as they gathered a year ago to chart their country's future.
Sadr, the most strident public opponent of the U.S. occupation, has developed a loyal following from the south to Baghdad through volunteers for his black-clad militia, Mahdi's Army, and a certain prestige as the last surviving son of a prominent family of Iraqi Shiite clerics who were systematically assassinated during Saddam's rule.
Shiite support for Sadr's movement is believed to be spotty, in part because he is seen as an upstart at a tender time in Iraq's emerging freedoms—as the United States and United Nations are trying to steer Iraq toward elections in which Shiites could dominate the ballot box.
An elder respected Shiite Ayatollah, Ali al Husseini al Sistani, 73, also has a strong following. He lives in the southern Shiite shrine city of Karbala, and, although he, too, opposes the U.S. occupation on Moslem soil, he has cautioned through aides against violence.
(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.