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US soldiers storm mosque in worst day of fighting with Sadr's militia
by independent
Sunday May 23rd, 2004 11:16 PM
US forces carried out air strikes on the Shia holy city of Najaf and stormed a mosque in nearby Kufa yesterday, as 34 people were killed in the worst fighting yet between American troops and Shia militiamen loyal to the radical cleric, Muqtada Sadr. At least three civilians were among the dead, according to doctors.

The Sahla mosque complex in Kufa was the scene of the heaviest battle yet between the Americans and Sadr's Mehdi Army. The violence came as the Shia militiamen withdrew from the other Shia holy city, Karbala, amid rumours of a deal with American troops.

But the battles in Kufa and Najaf appeared to be US troops' answer to an offer from Sadr for his militia to withdraw from Najaf if the Americans did the same. US forces have vowed to kill or capture Sadr, who launched a Shia uprising against the occupation in April.

As many as 20 Mehdi Army militiamen are believed to have died in the battle at the Sahla mosque. The mosque's ornate gateway had been damaged, its decorated tiles smashed away and the stonework crumbling beneath. The desecration of the mosque provoked fury among Iraqi Shia, and an angry crowd gathered yesterday and vowed to resist the occupation.

The Americans said they had only attacked the mosque because the Mehdi Army was using it as a military base.

Witnesses said US forces bombarded the area around the mosque with artillery fire and air strikes before moving in yesterday. Then, at around 1am local time, about 100 US troops stormed the mosque and tanks smashed their way through the main gateway.

"I feel humiliated, our sanctity has been violated," Ali Wasi, one of about 100 local residents who gathered at the mosque to protest, told reporters. "These houses of prayer are the most valuable things we own, for Shias. I will resist them to the last drop of blood in my body."

American artillery pounded the area around the Najaf cemetery, where Mehdi Army militiamen have been using guerrilla tactics against US forces in the narrow alleys.

US warplanes carried out air strikes in the area north of the city. At least 14 people died in the strikes, among them three civilians and several police officers, who were killed when Najaf's main police station was hit. Najaf is built around the Shrine of Imam Ali, Shia Islam's pre-eminent saint, and the American onslaught there is causing anger across the Shia world.

There was confusion over the Mehdi Army's withdrawal from Karbala yesterday.

All the evidence suggested the Americans had made a deal - but they denied it. Both US forces Mr Sadr's militia had left the city after the cleric's offer to pull his fighters out if the Americans did the same.

Local Iraqi leaders have been trying to negotiate a withdrawal. Local security forces were patrolling the streets yesterday, which is reminiscent of the US withdrawal from Fallujah, under a deal in which Iraqi forces under a former Iraqi general took control of security there.

But Major David Gercken, a spokesman for the US 1st Armoured Division, insisted: "There was no ceasefire, no deal made in Karbala. We do not and will not make deals with militias or criminals". And the Americans insisted their troops had not withdrawn from Karbala, but had been repositioned.

There were also signs yesterday that the shaky truce in Fallujah may not last. Two US soldiers were killed, and five others wounded, in an ambush near the city by insurgents using a bomb and rocket-propelled grenades. It was the first attack on US forces in the area since the Fallujah deal.