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Fighting spreads as U.S. troops kill 350 Iraqis

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Fighting between cleric Muqtada al Sadr's militia and the U.S.-led military coalition continued to spread through southern and central Iraq Friday, leaving at least 350 dead and more than 160 injured in two days of battles that threatened the stability of an already fragile nation.

U.S. Marines in the southern town of Najaf confirmed that they had killed about 300 of al Sadr's fighters since the clashes began Thursday. A commander there estimated that his men are still facing some 2,000 members of al Sadr's Mahdi Army, named for the Shiite Muslim messiah. Three Marines have been killed there and 12 wounded.

"The battlefield is very fluid at the moment," said Lt. Col. Gary Johnston, operations officer for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Force in Najaf. "There are also criminals and gangs among the fighting. It is difficult to say: Is it local gangs firing in one area, or is it kids picking up guns they have found and firing them at us, or is it anti-Iraqi forces?"

The fighting in Najaf has included American F-15 fighter jets dropping bombs, U.S. Apache helicopters shooting missiles and American tanks letting loose with barrages of fire.

In a speech delivered on al Sadr's behalf at Friday prayers at his main mosque, in a town next to Najaf, a cleric railed, "I say America is our enemy and the enemy of the people, and we will not accept its partnership. ... America is the greatest of Satans."

Adding to the high-stakes tension, the nation's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, was secretly taken out of Najaf and flown to London because of heart problems, according to his representatives. If al Sistani were to die, especially while out of the country, massive unrest could follow and al Sadr, whose father also was a grand ayatollah, might well try to fill the power vacuum. A spokesman in London wouldn't discuss the exact nature of al Sistani's heart problems, but said he'd have tests Monday.

The Mahdi clashes spread late Thursday to Baghdad, where by Friday evening a series of gunfights had left 20 dead and 114 wounded in the slum of Sadr City, named for al Sadr's late father. It was unclear how many of those were civilians. In the western corridor of the capital, Mahdi members fought with soldiers near an al Sadr office, and at least seven Iraqis were killed.

At least 16 U.S. soldiers in Baghdad were wounded. None were reported killed.

Since the fighting in Iraq began in March 2003, at least 924 U.S. service members have been killed.

To the far south, 13 Iraqis were injured and six killed in attacks on Italian troops in the city of Nasiriyah. There also were reports that Mahdi members seized four police stations in Amarah and fought with British troops in Basra, where some five Iraqis were killed.

The bloodshed raised the specter of a repeat of April's uprising by al Sadr's followers, in which hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. It's also a substantial test of the interim Iraqi government, which has positioned itself as being tough on the insurgency, but so far has been unable to muster much beyond rounding up common criminals.

Waeil Abdel-Latif, the Iraqi minister of state for provincial affairs, said a team of Shiite leaders, known as the Shiite House, had been trying to broker a truce in Najaf, which hopefully would lead to calm in the rest of the country.

The stage for the fighting was set last Saturday, when American forces arrested an al Sadr aide in the southern town of Karbala. A few days later, Marines got into a firefight near a house that al Sadr uses in Najaf, an incident that convinced al Sadr's group that the Americans intended to arrest him on an outstanding warrant in connection with the murder of a rival cleric last year.

On Thursday, fighting broke out early in the morning in Najaf. The Marines said it came after Mahdi members attacked police stations; the Mahdi members maintained that the Marines circled the city, unprovoked, and began to push in.

An al Sadr cleric and spokesman in the Baghdad neighborhood of Khadamiya, Hazim al Arajie, said al Sadr's group had received overtures from a United Nations representative and the Shiite House.

"We explained to them that we're not the ones who violated the truce. The Americans did," he said.

The messages about the possibility of a truce have been mixed. A top al Sadr spokesman and leader in Najaf, Ahmed Sheybani, said Thursday that his organization was looking only for peace. The same day, he was organizing and commanding Mahdi fighters who ran out into the streets and shot at passing helicopters.

Col. Anthony Haslam, the base commander for the Marines in Najaf, said he hadn't "heard anything of a truce . . . we have no information about a cease-fire offer."

The Iraqi minister of justice, Malik Dohan al Hassan, said he had some sympathy for the Mahdi members fighting American forces near the city core in Najaf, which is the location of the Imam Ali shrine, the holiest site in Shiite Islam.

"I can't blame them for defending their sacred sites," he said. "But at the same time I would like to ask them to control themselves for the sake of this country."

While the U.S. military said Iraqi security forces were involved in clashes, there were no Iraqi national guards or police visible in Najaf on Thursday or Sadr City on Friday.

"The poor Iraqi police force do not have a chance," Haslam said. "They are attacked and they are outgunned."

Johnston, the Marine lieutenant colonel, said his men didn't have any such problems.

"The Marines are here and I think you know how they operate," he said. "If you kill a Marine, the Marines are going to fight back."

The streets of Sadr City were filled Friday with Mahdi gunmen toting AK-47's and rocket-propelled grenades who seemed equally confident. They sat in the middle of the road and dug holes in which they placed mines and homemade bombs meant for U.S. tanks and humvees.

At Friday prayers in Sadr City, thousands of men chanted: "Muqtada is a bridge to paradise."

Shortly after the prayers ended, pickups roared off, with Mahdi members crammed in the back, pumping their rifles in the air.

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

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