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Iraq Cleric to Widen War After U.S. Bombs Baghdad HQ
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr Monday ordered his Mehdi Army to launch a broad new offensive against U.S.-led occupying forces following a U.S. crackdown on his strongholds in Baghdad and across the south.
U.S. bombs flattened his office in the capital overnight.
"We have now entered a second phase of resistance," said Sadr's chief aide at his main base in the holy city of Najaf.
U.S. commanders, helped by rival Shi'ite leaders, sound increasingly confident of containing Sadr's month-old uprising.
But efforts to foster a pro-American spirit in Iraq ahead of next month's handover of sovereignty to an interim government ran into more trouble with new revelations from the International Committee of the Red Cross about U.S. failures to prevent its soldiers abusing Iraqis.
Photographic revelations that soldiers sent to "liberate" them from Saddam Hussein have abused prisoners are undermining efforts to win over Iraqis, despite efforts by President Bush to assure them that a case heading for court martial next week is an isolated incident swiftly dealt with.
A report, published in the Wall Street Journal and confirmed by the ICRC, said Red Cross officials complained in October -- two months before the pictures in the court martial case were taken -- about prisoners being held naked in total darkness in Saddam's Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.
A U.S. military intelligence officer defended the treatment at the time as standard practice, said the ICRC, which also disclosed that its president went to Washington in January to alert Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz in person to the agency's concerns.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who faces calls to resign, said he learned of problems with prisons in Iraq only in January. Bush, fighting for re-election, has stood by him.
His main U.S. ally in Iraq was also under fire to confront allegations that British soldiers also abused prisoners. Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized but faced further questioning.
The killings of a South African and a New Zealand engineer in a drive-by shooting in the northern oilfields and a bomb that slowed up oil exports from the south also struck at U.S. efforts to stabilize the country ahead of the June 30 handover.
U.S. Marines made an effort to show they have restored peace to the Sunni Muslim city of Falluja by driving an armored convoy into the center for the first time since a bloody siege last month. But scenes of armed guerrillas cheering the convoy's departure, suggested that peace remains rather fragile.
Responding to what appears to be the main military threat at present, U.S. aircraft bombed Sadr's offices in the restive Baghdad slum of Sadr City overnight, witnesses said.
At least one bomb fell on the single-storey building around 2 a.m. (2200 GMT Sunday) and virtually destroyed it. There was no immediate comment from the U.S. military, which reported 19 members of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia were killed in a series of clashes in the impoverished Shi'ite neighborhood Sunday.
The raid was part of a stepped up military campaign against an uprising launched by the Shi'ite cleric against U.S.-led forces a month ago. Sadr has taken refuge in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, south of the capital, with thousands of men.
U.S. forces, spurred on by mounting irritation with Sadr among Shi'ite elders, have squeezed the outskirts of Najaf. With British forces around Basra, they have been taking back key positions like police stations in a string of towns across Shi'ite southern Iraq. An armored U.S. column rolled again into the center of the holy city of Kerbala Monday.
Sadr's chief aide in Najaf told Reuters he was hitting back.
"Our policy now is to extend the state of resistance and to move it to all of Iraq because of the occupiers' military escalation and crossing of all red lines in the holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf," Qais al-Khazali said.
Sadr has threatened to launch suicide bombers should U.S. troops intrude on sacred ground. There have also been signs that militants from the Shi'ite south might join forces with minority Sunni guerrillas to the north and west, despite a history of strife that saw Sunnis oppress Shi'ites under Saddam Hussein.
In Kirkuk, main city of the northern oilfields, gunmen killed a South African and a New Zealand engineer and an Iraqi in a drive-by shooting, police said.
In the southern oilfields, also crucial to putting Iraq back on its feet, exports were reduced sharply after saboteurs blew up a pipeline Saturday, the U.S. Army said. It was still ablaze at the southern tip of the Faw Peninsula, near Basra.
Arab television Al Jazeera aired a video tape it said was from an unknown Iraqi group that vowed to kidnap and kill Arab and foreign workers -- especially Kuwaitis -- in Basra.