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Fresh violence breaks truce between the U.S., al-Sadr militia

KUFA, Iraq—A truce reached Thursday between U.S. forces and a rebel Shiite cleric broke down Friday.

In front of the Kufa Mosque, young militiamen furiously loaded mortars into launchers aimed at American soldiers.

A stricken father stood over the fly-covered corpse of his son and a young woman described her hopes of becoming a suicide bomber as the truce between the U.S.-led coalition and Muqtada al-Sadr disintegrated in its first hours. By the end of the day, at least five Iraqis had been killed and two U.S. soldiers were wounded in clashes.

U.S. officials and Iraqi leaders had trumpeted the peace agreement reached Thursday with al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. They had hoped to stop al-Sadr's bloody uprising before it further inflamed Iraq's Shiite majority ahead of the June 30 transfer of limited sovereignty.

"There would appear to be violations of the agreement," U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad. He added that it could take "a couple of days before the true cease-fire ... holds."

Early Friday morning, promises of a less-visible U.S. military presence in exchange for the withdrawal of militiamen in southern holy cities appeared abandoned. U.S. soldiers in armored vehicles ringed Kufa and prevented cars from entering, leaving thousands of worshipers to dodge U.S. gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades from guerrillas as they walked a now-familiar gauntlet to Friday prayers.

"When we saw the American tanks moving in, we resumed our operations," said a 32-year-old guerrilla who called himself Abu Sarmad. "The Americans broke the truce. They act and we react. And we're in the right. We didn't go to their country to fight."

The Mahdi Army also was in full force, with lookouts perching on trash heaps to direct gunmen, who staged attacks from the rundown neighborhoods around Kufa Mosque. A soft-drink vendor closed shop and whipped a blanket off a crate filled with dozens of mortar rounds. Masked men gathered around car trunks to dole out rocket-propelled grenade launchers, assault rifles and even long silver swords.

In the mosque, a feverish crowd jostled for a glimpse of al-Sadr, who typically gives a noon sermon laced with anti-American messages and appreciation for his fighters. Under a steamy summer rain, al-Sadr's supporters sobbed and chanted as they waited for the cleric's arrival.

Hundreds of black-robed women crammed so close together in their segregated area that elbows poked into backs as a mosque worker sprinkled them with rose water. Many women identified themselves as Mahdi Army fighters who assumed combat roles after their sons and husbands arrived home in coffins in the two months of fighting.

A 30-year-old woman who gave her name as Saha said she was in a training program for a Mahdi Army suicide squad, with weekly meetings at the mosque on politics and religion.

"I would go blow myself up in front of an American base today if I could," Saha said, proudly showing off her white burial shroud trimmed with black flowers. "Only one word from Mr. Sadr would be enough."

While the coalition has repeatedly described the Mahdi Army as an untrained, ill-equipped band of thugs, the women at Kufa Mosque painted a picture of a much more organized force.

Umm Karim, 60, said she coordinates cooking groups to feed men on the front line. Umm Nadia, 45, is in charge of first-aid supplies that she says are delivered regularly from Fallujah, a western city where the coalition is battling a Sunni Muslim insurgency. All the women said they provide safe houses for guerrillas and take turns nursing the wounded.

"If I wasn't afraid of Saddam, why should I be afraid of that rat Bush, that dog Bremer and that lizard Kimmitt?" said Umm Nadia, referring to the American president and top occupation authorities. "I have four sons who are fighters in the Mahdi Army. My husband is the fifth, and I am the sixth."

By 1 p.m. local time, the crowd grew restless as al-Sadr failed to appear. Most cheered when Ibrahim al Jaffery, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, made an unexpected appearance, though one man tried to throw a prayer stone at the politician.

"Muqtada! Muqtada!" they chanted, but still al-Sadr didn't show.

Worshippers jumped to their feet when a voice finally crackled over a loudspeaker to start the sermon. Crowd members exchanged dismayed looks when they didn't recognize the voice as al-Sadr's. His aides later said he skipped the prayer for the first time in weeks to avoid U.S. troops, who appeared poised for his capture.

The substitute imam urged al-Sadr supporters to "sacrifice their blood."

The bodies of two men lay in a decrepit corner of the mosque and were covered with sweets, a tradition reserved for martyrs. Flies buzzed around the corpses as militiamen hoisted the coffins on their shoulders and marched them through the mosque's ornate doors in a funeral procession.

The father of one of the dead men, Haider Shaker, described his 25-year-old son Aqil as a photographer who worked in a studio after earning a fine arts degree from a local college. He said his son, at first reluctant to join the Mahdi Army, threw rocks at U.S. tanks Friday morning and was killed in retaliatory fire.

Shaker, 54, looked bewildered as his son's comrades approached him, shook his hand and whispered, "Straight to heaven, God willing" and "I hope to join him soon in martyrdom." The young men then jumped into flatbed trucks that would carry them into battle.

"Why didn't the truce work?" Shaker wondered aloud. "Both sides just ignored it and used it as an excuse for more fighting. Now we've lost the chance."

Earlier in the day, two teenage sisters with purple nail polish peeking out from the sleeves of their black cloaks walked to prayers with their elderly father. They had fled to Baghdad because of the clashes and returned only because they'd heard about the truce.

"God willing, nothing will happen. We feel happy about the agreement," said Intisar, 17. The rest of her words were drowned out by mortar fire that sent the family scurrying away.


(Knight Ridder correspondent Robert Moran contributed to this report.)


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

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


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