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Al-Sadr's fighters tout Humvee as trophy of battle

KUFA, Iraq—Gunmen loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr towed a battered 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment Humvee into Kufa police headquarters Monday and said it was a trophy from a firefight that left 16 Americans dead or wounded.

The Iraqis said the firefight took place earlier Monday a half-mile outside Najaf. About 2,500 U.S. troops are camped out outside Najaf and nearby Kufa on a mission to kill or capture al-Sadr, the founder of the Mahdi Army militia. The two cities are holy places for Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and Shiites around the world.

The only information about the reported attack came from the gunmen and an Iraqi witness. The U.S. military in Iraq had no reports of any deaths or injuries of Americans or of any damaged vehicles in the Kufa area Monday, a military spokeswoman said.

One Mahdi fighter, his face masked in a black scarf and a Kalashnikov rifle cradled in his arms, claimed that he and other guerrillas captured the Humvee and burned two others in a six-vehicle convoy that rolled toward Kufa around noon. Pilgrims came on foot Monday to Najaf to pray at the Grand Imam Ali Shrine, to commemorate the Prophet Muhammad's death more than 1,300 years ago.

"The Americans have no respect for this holy day," the fighter said, insisting that U.S. troops fired first.

But a witness, who said his house was roughly 100 yards from the fighting, said 80 to 100 Mahdi gunmen hidden behind palm trees ambushed the Americans.

"They started shooting from all sides and forced the Americans to retreat," said the witness, Taleb Muslim, a 55-year-old teacher who described himself as a fervent supporter of al-Sadr.

The battered Humvee's windows were shattered and at least one rocket-propelled grenade had burned the interior, which was stripped of equipment. Dried blood streaked the vehicle's exterior near the driver's seat. An empty bag of Fritos, two empty boxes of Marlboros and cigarette butts littered the floor.

The gunmen at first allowed curious passers-by to examine the vehicle at the police compound, which they commandeered from Iraqi police more than a week ago. Before long, however, they cut short the viewing and ushered everyone outside.

Al-Sadr spokesman Qais al Khazali said Mahdi fighters were out to ensure security for the pilgrims when they encountered the U.S. convoy. Like the fighter, he said the Americans attacked first.

He lauded the decision Sunday by new Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to pull Spain's 1,300 troops out of Iraq quickly, fulfilling a campaign pledge. The al-Qaida terrorist network has claimed that the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, which killed 191 people, were a response to Spain's support for American policy in Iraq.

"It seems Spain thought more of its people than about American interests," al Khazali said, adding that he hoped other coalition partners would follow suit. After Spain's announcement, al-Sadr in writing ordered all Mahdi troops to refrain from attacking the Spanish troops "for 15 days as a reward so they can withdraw from Iraq" peacefully, al Khazali added.

Indirect talks between the Americans and al-Sadr to end the standoff in Najaf were resuming, a cleric linked to the negotiations said. The talks are being conducted through a go-between, al Dawa (the Islamic Call Party), a Shiite political party.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-NAJAF

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