NAJAF, Iraq _The tenuous truce between the U.S. military and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr unraveled Thursday when al-Sadr's men staged a massive assault on an Iraqi police station, forced down an American helicopter and attacked Army and Marine convoys in hard daylong fighting.
The militia, called the Mahdi Army after the Shiite Muslim messiah, waged gun battles with U.S. Marines from dusk to dawn Thursday in the holy town of Najaf, scrambling up and down its dusty side streets and opening up barrages of machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars on Humvees and helicopters.
At least one soldier and two Marines were killed and five wounded in the fighting, which left at least seven Mahdi members and an unknown number of civilians dead and dozens more injured. No one died in the downing of the UH-1 helicopter, whose wounded crew was evacuated.
Fighting between U.S. troops and al-Sadr's supporters also was reported in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City and the southern towns of Basra and Amarrah. Including a car bomb south of Baghdad, at least 20 civilians were killed in violence.
If the conflict continues, it could erupt into something similar to the al-Sadr offensive in April, which left hundreds dead. The ability of U.S. and Iraqi officials to navigate the situation, both politically and militarily, could have a profound impact on at least the near future of Iraq.
Al-Sadr has in the past been successful in wrapping himself both in a nationalist rage toward the American occupation, and the popular martyrdom of his father, who was one of Iraq's most revered Shiite clerics before Saddam Hussein assassinated him. Should the U.S. military push too hard, it risks turning al-Sadr into an even bigger symbol of anti-American resistance who could wreck plans for democracy in an already fragile nation.
Iraqi and American officials portrayed the battles around Najaf as a victory for the Iraqi security forces, who reportedly made an initial stand against the Mahdi troops. By early afternoon, police and national guard had evacuated Najaf, leaving the streets overrun by Mahdi gunmen, who were mostly clad in black and wearing tennis shoes.
"We are going to fight those militias," said Iraqi Interior Minister Falah Hassan al Naqib. "We have enough power and enough strength to kick those people out of the country."
While the interim Iraqi government has shown no inclination to arrest al-Sadr on an outstanding warrant in connection with the murder of a rival cleric last year, al Naqib boasted that "I will arrest anybody disturbing the rest of Iraq ... once we find him, we will arrest him."
A senior American military official, asking not to be identified, said there were no plans to arrest al-Sadr, an action that could spur even wider-reaching violence.
In Najaf Thursday, gunmen stood in alleys and crouched on sidewalks as they launched rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at Marines, who responded with volleys of heavy machine-gun fire and what sounded like artillery and tank rounds.
Grinning as he walked and ran through the city landscape turned battleground, Mahdi member Ali Hussein said that "the Mahdi Army is doing a good job ... we don't need the police."
Moments later, he shouted, "Look out! Look out! Snipers!" A succession of shots rang out.
Mahdi members said the snipers were members of the rival Shiite Badr Brigade, but there were many Mahdi fighters walking around town with rifles that had tripods and scopes. Either way, crossing the street required a fast dash, with bullets whizzing.
The accounts given by the Mahdi Army and the Marines about what triggered the day's violence differed.
The Marines said the provincial governor called them in after Mahdi forces stormed a police station once at 1 a.m. Thursday, and then again two hours later, using AK-47s, RPGs and mortars.
The Mahdi Army " will soon learn that precise, lethal firepower will be brought to bear upon them when they choose to stand and fight," said Marine Capt. Carrie Batson in an e-mail interview. "The Iraqi people deserve more than to have these thugs ruining their opportunity for democracy."
The Mahdi Army had reportedly been kidnapping police officers and holding them to trade for militia members arrested recently. Although al-Sadr representatives denied the kidnappings, the Marines said in a release that the Mahdi Army released five police officers on Wednesday.
Al-Sadr's camp, on the other hand, said that the Marines circled the city in the early morning hours, and made a push toward the downtown district. Spokesmen for al-Sadr said the Marines, who took responsibility for the area at the end of July, were carrying through on a recent pattern of hostility that included encroaching on the property near a house where al-Sadr was staying and arresting one of his aides in nearby Karbala.
At the center of Najaf sits the Ali Imam Shrine, one of the most important holy sites in all of Islam and one that, if damaged seriously, could spark a massive uprising by Iraq's Shiite majority.
Mahdi fighters guarded the site Thursday, many with land mines sitting next to them, to be thrown in the road if American Humvees approached. Several men pointed to a spot on the shrine's dome where it looked like a mortar had knocked through a group of gold shingles. They blamed the damage on the Americans, but it was impossible to confirm.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Dogen Hannah contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ