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Fears of backlash as troops battle with al Sadr fighters
HAMZA HENDAWI, Kerbala May 14 2004 US forces were yesterday locked in ferocious battles with Iraqi militiamen near two shrines in Kerbala, the Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein, which is one of the most sacred sites for Shi'ite Muslims. Heavy explosions were heard in another Shi'ite holy city, Najaf, where militiamen loyal to the radical cleric, Moqtada al Sadr, are also facing American troops.
Roadside bombs killed a US marine in the Falluja area yesterday and a soldier in Baghdad on Wednesday. Another marine died on Wednesday of wounds suffered during a clash in the Anbar province on the same day.
In Kerbala, al Sadr's fighters regrouped in alleys north of the Imam Hussein shrine. Smoke drifted over the gold-domed shrine, apparently from a nearby power generator that had been set on fire.
American forces were concerned that any damage to the two shrines could enrage Iraq's majority Shi'ite population as the US tries to stabilise Iraq ahead of the transition to sovereignty on June 30.
Residents said the fighting left many homes destroyed and shops gutted by fire. Many families fled as groups of militiamen moved about in the side streets.
US tanks, helicopters and jets had attacked al Sadr's fighters in Kerbala on Wednesday, partially destroying a mosque that insurgents had used as a base, and killed 22 militants.
Hospital officials in Najaf said four people were killed and six injured in overnight fighting between American forces and al Sadr supporters.
The US-led coalition has issued an arrest warrant against al Sadr over the murder of a rival cleric. Iraqi leaders in Najaf have proposed that al Sadr would end the standoff if the coalition postpones its legal case and establishes an Iraqi force to patrol the city.
Al Sadr, himself remains defiant. He urged his fighters to resist and compared their struggle to the Vietnam War.
At a shrine in Najaf, where he is holed up, he said: "I appeal to the fighters and mujahideen in Kerbala to stand together so none of our holy sites and cities are defiled. We are prepared for any American escalation and we expect one."