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Coalition troops open fire: 24 killed in Najaf
by New Nation
Sunday Apr 4th, 2004 10:31 AM
Spanish-led troops and Iraqi police fired on protesters and clashed with armed Shi'ite militiamen near Najaf Sunday, leaving at least 20 people dead and more than 100 wounded, witnesses and hospital officials said.

The shooting began after protesters marched on a Spanish-run military base in Kufa, near Najaf, to protest the arrest of an aide to a radical Shi'ite cleric and last week's closure by U.S. authorities of a militant Baghdad newspaper.

Four soldiers from El Salvador were killed and nine wounded on Sunday in the clashes.

Witnesses said some of the demonstrators threw stones at a military vehicle arriving at the base and shortly afterwards Spanish-led troops and Iraqi police manning the perimeter opened fire on the crowd from several directions.

Black-clad members of the Mehdi Army, a banned militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical anti-American cleric, then returned fire, shooting at the heavily defended base from afar.

In central Baghdad, security forces opened fire on a Shi'ite protest Sunday and in the northern city of Kirkuk a car bomb exploded, wounding at least three people, police said.

Meanwhile, Two Marines have been killed in Iraq's western Anbar province "as a result of enemy action," the U.S. military said in a statement Sunday.

The two, both assigned to the 1st Marine Division, were injured in separate incidents Saturday. One died the same day; the other died Sunday, the statement said. It provided no other details.

The most populous city in Anbar province, which stretches from Baghdad to the Jordanian border is Fallujah, where four American civilians were killed and their bodies mutilated Wednesday.

In the city of Baqouba, 30 miles northeast of Baghdad, a bomb exploded Sunday in the al-Rasool al-Adham Shiite mosque, damaging part of the building, but causing no casualties, said the mosque's caretaker Haider Yassin.

In central Baghdad, hundreds of supporters of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr rallied in Firdous Square to protest the arrest on Saturday of one his senior aides, Mustafa al-Yaqoubi, in a raid on his house in the city of Najaf.

It was not clear who detained him. U.S. officials could not confirm the arrest and Spanish forces based in the city denied taking action against him.

About 5,000 members of al-Sadr's self-styled militia, the al-Mahdi Army, paraded in Sadr City, a mainly Shiite district in eastern Baghdad, on Saturday. The cleric has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led occupation, but has not called for attacks on the occupying forces.

Al-Sadr's weekly newspaper was shut by U.S. officials on March 28, provoking an enormous anti-American outpouring.

On Saturday, gunmen shot and killed the police chief of Mahmoudiya town, 20 miles south of Baghdad, and his driver while they were driving home from the capital.

Not long afterward, six attackers shot at a four-man police patrol in Mahmoudiya, killing one and wounding three, police officer Khaldoon al-Gurairi said. A 60-year-old bystander was also killed.

Guerrillas often target police because they view them as collaborators with the U.S.-led occupation. Also they make easier targets because they are less armed and protected than the U.S. troops.

In Najaf, Hadi Abdul-Ridha, the head of the general hospital morgue, told Reuters there were 11 dead at the hospital. The director of the hospital, Dr Shawqi Wathiq, said there were at least 90 wounded.

Earlier an official at Sada hospital in the nearby town of Kufa said at least eight dead had been brought in from the clashes and there were at least 35 wounded, some seriously.

At another hospital in Najaf, director Najim Abid Judi said 10 wounded had been brought in, two of them with severe gunshot injuries to the chest.

More than three hours after the first shots were fired, fighting was still going on with militiamen hiding out in an industrial area across the road from the base and exchanging fire with troops, a Reuters journalist at the scene said.

Two Apache helicopters were flying over low, monitoring the industrial zone, an area of mechanics' workshops and junkyards.

Militiamen, some appearing as young as 17 or 18, occasionally emerged from the industrial area and unleashed rounds from AK-47s assault rifles before running for cover.

The return of short bursts of gunfire from the garrison, where troops from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries including El Salvador are based, injured several Iraqis.

"I was standing next to the tree and then I felt fire in my leg and I fell to the ground," said Hamza Mussewi, an unarmed protester who took a bullet in the knee.

There was no immediate word of any injuries on the side of coalition forces. The Spanish headquarters in Najaf could not be reached for comment.

Sadr's supporters have staged several marches in the past week to protest against the closure a week ago of al-Hawza newspaper, a mouthpiece for Sadr that U.S.-led authorities accused of inciting anti-American violence.

In recent days, they have also angrily protested against the arrest of Mustapha Yacoubi, an aide to 30-year-old Sadr, who they say was seized by coalition forces in Najaf Friday.

Spanish troops, who are responsible for security in the area around Najaf, deny detaining Yacoubi, but said Sunday other members of the coalition may have arrested him.

Sadr's militia, formed last year, has become increasingly vocal and aggressive in recent weeks.

Saturday, several thousand members of the Mehdi Army paraded through Sadr City, a rundown neighborhood on the outskirts of Baghdad, in a show of force. Sadr draws much of his support from poor urban Shi'ites, particularly around Baghdad.

Oppressed under Saddam, Iraq's Shi'ites have grown increasingly vocal and confident in the past year. They hope a future Iraqi government after sovereignty is handed over at the end of June will reflect their majority status in the country.

As well as demonstrations in Najaf and Kufa, thousands of Sadr's supporters also gathered in the capital and in the southern cities of Basra and Nassiriya Sunday.

In Baghdad, demonstrators chanting anti-American slogans protested at the entrance to the headquarters of the U.S.-led administration and in Firdos square, where a statue of Saddam Hussein was famously pulled down nearly a year ago.

The U.S. military said it had shut down entrances to the headquarters area, known as the Green Zone, as a precaution.

Protesters at the Firdos square demonstration displayed the coffins of two supporters they said were killed by U.S. gunfire during another protest Saturday night. A U.S. military spokesman said he knew nothing about such an incident.

Separately, the U.S. military said two U.S. Marines were killed in attacks over the weekend in a volatile province west of Baghdad where earlier this week four U.S. contractors were killed, burned and dragged through the streets by a jubilant mob.

The deaths raise to 411 the number of U.S. troops killed in action in the year since U.S.-led forces invaded to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The anniversary of the fall of Saddam's regime is on April 9 and U.S. officials are preparing for an increase in attacks in the run-up to that date.