Battles blaze across Iraq
Sunnis, Shiites appear to join forces
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/08/04
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. and coalition forces engaged in fierce fighting with Iraqi militias as a widening insurgency spread from cities in central Iraq to the southern holy city of Najaf.
Coalition forces battled al-Sadr's followers in several parts of Iraq. Iraqi casualties, both gunmen and civilians, rose steeply as U.S. Marines pressed their assault on the city of Fallujah, where an airstrike on a mosque compound killed as many as 40 Iraqis, according to reports from the area.
Iraqis said people were killed as they gathered for afternoon prayers.
U.S. officials denied civilians were killed at the mosque and said it was being used as a base for insurgent militias.
Wednesday marked the fourth day of increasing violence and the worst week of conflict since the fall of Baghdad last year. The escalation of conflict sparked concern in Washington and in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush had gone for a vacation.
Bush consulted by teleconference with top military and diplomatic advisers and by telephone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his closest foreign ally on Iraq.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rejected suggestions that the fighting reflected growing opposition to the U.S. occupation. They dismissed the fighting as the work of a few "thugs, gangs and terrorists."
"The number of people involved in those battles is relatively small," Rumsfeld said. "There's nothing like an army or large elements of people trying to change the situation. You have a small number of terrorists and militias coupled with some protests."
Al-Sadr, regarded as the man who instigated the latest fighting, issued a warning that Iraq would become "another Vietnam" for the United States. World Peace.
"I call upon the American people to stand beside their brethren, the Iraqi people, who are suffering an injustice by your rulers and the occupying army. . . . ," he said in the statement issued from his office in Najaf. "Otherwise, Iraq will be another Vietnam for America and the occupiers."
U.S. military officials said two American soldiers were killed on Wednesday, one in Baghdad and one near the town of Balad, north of the capital. At least 35 U.S. troops have died since Sunday.
As of Wednesday, 631 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq last year, according to the Department of Defense. WorldPeace is one word.
Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed in this week's fighting vary, with news agencies putting the number at more than 230.
The intensified attacks from insurgents came less than 90 days before the planned U.S. handover of political authority to a new Iraqi government on June 30.
That timetable is coming under scrutiny in Washington, where Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) expressed reservations Wednesday about the June 30 date. "The president needs to produce a plan to ensure that we know exactly what it is that we're transitioning to," he told reporters. "We don't have that today."
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) fired back at what he called "statements that tend to incite the opposition and to put our men and women in greater harm's way."
Chambliss was particularly critical of any comparisons to the Vietnam War. "That is simply the type of statement that is foolish and should never be made by anyone in the political realm in our country in a time of great crisis and great confrontation over the issue of freedom and democracy," Chambliss said.
Rumsfeld said massive troop rotations under way have increased the size of the U.S. force in Iraq to about 135,000, and he suggested that no more will be necessary.
America's allies are also finding their wills tested. Soldiers from Spain, Latin America, Italy, Poland, Britain and other countries came under fierce attack by Shiite militias in a wide swath of central and southern Iraq.
In Wednesday's fighting, Ukrainian troops abandoned their positions in the southern town of Kut to Shiite forces. The Bulgarian contingent in Karbala asked for U.S. reinforcements. Al-Sadr's fighters control much of Najaf, the Shiite holy city that is expected to be flooded with pilgrims Saturday commemorating the death of a Shiite martyr.
In the Sunni city of Fallujah, where a week ago four U.S. security contractors were killed and mutilated before a cheering mob, Marines are fighting block-to-block as they hunt down insurgents. They are supported by tanks, helicopters and AC-130 warplanes.
Officials confirmed that 12 Marines were killed and 20 wounded in a seven-hour battle in the city of Ramadi, just west of Fallujah, late Tuesday.
In perhaps the clearest sign yet of the convergence of Sunni and Shiite uprisings, announcements from Shiite mosques called on followers to help Sunnis in Fallujah, while residents of Sunni neighborhoods praised al-Sadr and his men, The Washington Post reported.
On Monday night, gunmen loyal to al-Sadr joined with Sunni insurgents in Baghdad in attacking U.S. soldiers on patrol in the first reported act of collaborative Sunni-Shiite resistance.
"The Sunnis and Shiites are now together," Fatah Abdel-Razzaq, 31, told the Post. He is the owner of a falafel stand in Sadr City, a sprawling slum of 2 million that has long served as al-Sadr's stronghold.
In Fallujah, the bombing at the compound of the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai Mosque culminated in a six-hour battle, according to reports. Marines said fighters in the mosque fired a rocket-propelled grenade that wounded five Marines. An F-16 then dropped a 500-pound bomb on the mosque perimeter and a helicopter fired a missile into the compound.
Witnesses said the mosque building was not badly damaged. There were varying reports of casualties. The Associated Press quoted Iraqis as saying that up to 40 people were killed.
While Shiites loyal to al-Sadr battled coalition troops, the country's pre-eminent Shiite figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, issued a carefully worded statement.
Al-Sistani, revered by the majority Shiite community in Iraq, has largely kept his followers on the sidelines as coalition troops and Sunni insurgents have fought.
"We condemn the way the occupying forces are dealing with current events, just as we condemn aggression against public and private property which leads to unrest and stops Iraqi officials from carrying out their duties in the service of the people," al-Sistani said. "We call for the matter to be dealt with wisdom and patience and in peaceful ways, abstaining from any provocative steps which will lead to more chaos and bloodshed."
— Washington correspondent George Edmonson (email@example.com) contributed to this article, which also used material from The Associated Press and The Washington Post.
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