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U.S. troops clash with al-Sadr's supporters in Najaf

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. forces battled supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf in southern Iraq Monday and may have surrounded a house where al-Sadr was staying.

Accounts of the fighting conflicted. Al-Sadr spokesman Ahmed al Shabani, reached by phone, said the fighting began in the early evening and lasted for four to five hours. Shabani said members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia thought the U.S. troops had come to arrest al-Sadr and opened fire.

Capt. Carrie C. Batson, a spokeswoman for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Force, said in an e-mail that the Marines "simply responded to the fire they were receiving—in self-defense." Batson stressed that, "The Marines DID NOT search al Sadr's home, nor did they surround his house."

A press release from the 11th MEF said that a routine patrol in Najaf got into a firefight after being attacked by AK-47 fire, rocket propelled grenades and mortars. It was not immediately clear whether the patrol unwittingly passed by a house that al-Sadr was visiting, thus sparking a confrontation.

Al Shabani put the Iraqi casualties at one dead and six wounded. The Marines said they'd killed two Iraqi insurgents.

The 11th MEF took over responsibility for Najaf only two days ago. Al-Sadr lives in nearby Kufa, but reportedly was at the Najaf home of his late father—one of the nation's most revered Shiite clerics who was executed by Saddam Hussein—when the battle broke out.

Whatever the cause of the confrontation, it highlights the delicacy of U.S. patrols in areas such as Najaf and Sadr City in Baghdad where al-Sadr's men have effectively taken control. Controlling al-Sadr, and navigating the space between his forces and the Americans, may well be one of the interim Iraqi governments toughest tasks.

As news circulated of the confrontation in Najaf, pro-al-Sadr demonstrations broke out in at least two Baghdad neighborhoods.

An Iraqi court issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with the murder of a rival cleric last year, but the current Iraqi administration, which took over from the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority just over a month ago, has shown little interest in pursuing al-Sadr.

The release from the 11th MEF noted that "Marines were patrolling in areas of the city authorized under the cease-fire agreement" reached between al-Sadr and local officials in June. The patrol had passed by a maternity hospital that is reportedly near the house al-Sadr was visiting.

"The Americans are the ones who have broken the truce," said al Shabani, al-Sadr's spokesman in Najaf. Al Shabani said, however, that al-Sadr has not order his Mahdi Army militia to attack American troops.

Al Shabani said that al-Sadr's house was surrounded by American Humvees and armored vehicles Monday night, with helicopters patrolling overhead.

News of the Najaf situation was read over loudspeakers in the Baghdad Shiite neighborhood of Kadhamiya, where a pro-al-Sadr protest broke out, witnesses said. Later in the evening, the streets of Sadr City, an al-Sadr stronghold in Baghdad, were filled with cars and trucks carrying Mahdi members who brandished AK-47s, RPGs and even swords.

The men said they were awaiting orders to drive south to Najaf, but at about 11:30 p.m., the word began to pass around that the fighters should go home, because it was not clear whether al-Sadr was still surrounded.

Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army rebelled against the American presence in Iraq in April after the CPA ordered an al-Sadr newspaper closed and a key aide arrested. Hundreds of Iraqis were killed in the ensuing fighting.

At the time, U.S. officials said that they would arrest or kill al-Sadr—a threat that seems to have faded in the weeks since the CPA surrendered authority to an interim Iraqi government amid suggestions that al-Sadr was welcomed to join the political process.

But al-Sadr complained to worshippers at Friday prayers in Kufa that several of his movement's leaders remain in jail, and he called for their release "or we are free to act."

Saturday, U.S. soldiers arrested the head of al-Sadr's office in nearby Karbala, a move that prompted Raad al Kadhami, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad, to say that Americans troops were behaving "in a barbaric way."

Asked what the repercussions might be, al Kadhami said, "We're all awaiting al-Sadr's directions."


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