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US troops surround Karbala
Karbala - Heavy black smoke was seen rising over Karbala Saturday as US tanks and armoured vehicles encircled the centre of the holy Shiite city, according to witnesses.
The smoke appeared to be coming from around an office of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr whose militiamen have battled for days with US forces in the area, a correspondent said.
US troops were posted to the north, west and east of the centre, said an official from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
An explosion and sporadic gunfire was heard from close to the Al-Mokhayam mosque, next to the cleric's office.
Eight members of Sadr's militia were killed in fighting here on Friday, and 14 were wounded.
Dozens of militiamen have been killed during a week of clashes in the Shiite cities of Diwaniyah, Karbala, Kufa and Najaf, as the US-led coalition put the squeeze on Sadr's forces in an attempt to isolate him.
US tanks secured the office of the new governor in Najaf, Adnan Al-Zorfi, immediately after the announcement of his appointment on Thursday. The new governor made a brief visit to the city on Friday.
NAJAF, Iraq - (KRT) - For a man under siege, Iraq's rebel cleric looked relaxed and even happy Friday as he strolled to his office in the southern Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf after delivering a sermon dismissing President Bush's apology for the U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
Surrounded by chanting men toting rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Muqtada al-Sadr smiled as he returned from his weekly appearance in the nearby city of Kufa. His Mahdi Army militiamen vowed to fight until "martyrdom" hours after an American jet dropped a 500-pound bomb on the outskirts of Kufa to destroy the militia's mortar positions.
"What sort of freedom and democracy can we expect from you when you take such joy in torturing Iraqi prisoners?" al-Sadr said during his sermon before thousands of followers, according to news reports and Iraqis who attended.
Since al-Sadr began his uprising April 4, the U.S.-led coalition has handled a standoff with him cautiously to avoid inflaming Iraq's Shiite majority by engaging his forces near holy sites. A military spokesman said the large-scale bombing - the first for the coalition in southern Iraq - landed in a field so that shock waves would do the damage without causing civilian casualties or harming the shrines.
Appearing defiant in the face of this week's U.S. crackdown, the young, virulently anti-American cleric condemned reports of coalition personnel abusing Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison. Photos of the abuse dominate Arabic-language newspapers and television.
Four U.S. service members were wounded in an explosion and gunfire during early-morning clashes with the Mahdi Army in Karbala, about 50 miles north of Najaf, a military spokesman said. To the south, al-Sadr's top aide in Basra offered bounties for the killing of British troops and said captured female troops could be kept as slaves. Allegations are emerging of prisoner abuse in British-controlled Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
In Najaf, a spokesman for al-Sadr said a tribesman acting as an envoy for the coalition arrived Friday for negotiations over a possible cease-fire. The coalition is asking for al-Sadr's forces to withdraw from the streets of Najaf and wants to install Iraqi police in their place, Sheik Ahmed al Sheybani said. In exchange, he said, al-Sadr wants the coalition to hand over control of a major hospital to Iraqis.
"The Americans know only the language of tanks and force," Sheybani said. "That's why we received their offensive this week as normal. We're used to this."
The negotiations were in a hotel across from the ornate Imam Ali shrine.
A boy who appeared no older than 7 held an AK-47 assault rifle and joined older militiamen guarding the mosque with mounted machine guns and other weapons. A black-draped woman passed the little boy, saw his gun and pulled him toward her for a kiss.
Though some Najaf residents privately said they blamed al-Sadr for their city's unrest and wanted his militia disbanded, outward support for him remained strong.
Passing truckloads of gunmen shouting, "Sadr, we will die for you!" drowned out sidewalk conversations. More than a dozen fighters chanted similar slogans as they carried a slain militiaman's wooden coffin in a raucous funeral procession. Posters of al-Sadr with a menacing expression are taped to donkey carts, juice stands and book kiosks.
At the Mahdi Army headquarters near the shrine, a commander who identified himself only as Abu Hassan said his men had attacked two U.S. tanks and a Humvee in the past 24 hours. While his claims couldn't be verified, a senior coalition spokesman said patrols were attacked twice by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Rebels fired about 15 mortars on the governor's building two and a half miles from the shrine, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a spokesman for coalition military operations. He said in Baghdad that U.S. forces fought back, killing an estimated 30 militiamen. That brings the three-day death toll for the Mahdi Army to more than 100, a figure the militia said was exaggerated. No coalition casualties were reported.
As Abu Hassan spoke, fighters arrived at the makeshift command center in battered, bullet-spotted cars with the windows apparently shot out. The booms and rumbles of distant fighting could be heard as the armed men described why they continue to attack the better-equipped and better-trained U.S. military.
"We joined the Mahdi Army because Seyed Muqtada is the only person truly advancing freedom for Iraqis," said Abu Hassan, using a religious title to refer to al-Sadr. "As you can see, most of the operations occur on the outskirts of Najaf, not in town. They know what we would do if they tried to enter the city."
On the road from Baghdad to Najaf on Friday, gunmen ambushed and killed two Polish journalists. Knight Ridder journalists on the same road passed the scene minutes after the attack and saw the dead men's Iraqi driver, wearing a blood-soaked shirt, flagging down Iraqi police near a car clearly marked "press."
The journalists killed were Waldemar Milewicz, one of Poland's most experienced war correspondents, and his producer, Mounir Bouamrane, a Polish-Algerian. Both worked for Polish state-run television, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. A camera operator and the driver survived.