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U.S. forces kill 35 of al-Sadr's militiamen

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. forces destroyed the Baghdad office of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr early Monday and killed 35 of his militiamen, the latest actions in a military campaign aimed at ending al-Sadr's six-week-old insurgency.

Al-Sadr responded with renewed attacks on the American-led coalition in southern cities and in Sadr City, the Baghdad slum named after his late father. Reports indicated that U.S. forces and al-Sadr militiamen battled for nearly two hours Monday near Karbala.

Over the weekend, American forces arrested an alleged al-Sadr financier and other supporters at the office. Monday, they struck the office with rounds from tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and possibly from helicopters, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a spokesman for military operations in Iraq.

Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division clashed repeatedly with al-Sadr's militiamen, Kimmitt said, killing 35 and wounding two. Four American soldiers were wounded in Monday's operation.

It isn't clear, however, whether the military offensive will defeat the armed opposition to the occupation or fuel it.

A recent coalition-funded poll suggests that al-Sadr's popularity is growing even among Iraqis of different religious sects and ethnic groups. He's emerged as the most outspoken anti-American figure, and continues to deliver blistering sermons encouraging Iraqis to resist the occupation, especially in light of the prisoner-abuse scandal.

In southern Iraq, saboteurs attacked one of Iraq's main oil export pipelines, on the Faw peninsula, temporarily cutting the country's oil exports by as much as 25 percent.

U.S. Marines tested a fragile peace Monday in Fallujah, the coalition's most consistently troublesome area, by sending a patrol to the heart of the city to meet with local leaders. The convoy drew no gunfire as it rode through town accompanied by the controversial Fallujah Brigade, an emerging 1,000-man Iraqi security force supervised by former generals from Saddam Hussein's regime.

Some residents reportedly even waved as the Marines ventured farther into the city than they had since the Fallujah Brigade assumed control of security there May 3.

The convoy, led by Maj. Gen. James N. Matthis, traveled to the mayor's office without incident.

"Fallujah has gone over a week without a cease-fire violation," Kimmitt said. While he described the city as quiet, he stressed that there was still work to be done. The military must hunt down those responsible for the deaths of four American contractors March 31, the event that touched off the month-long confrontation between Marines and insurgents there.

In Baghdad, a bomb exploded late Sunday night in the lobby bar of a hotel where foreign contract workers are staying. Two British citizens and two Iraqis were wounded.

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(Moran reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam in Baghdad contributed to this report.)

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

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