IRAQ Battles flare up in cities
U.S. helicopters attacked militants hiding in a cemetery.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Coalition troops battled militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in several Iraqi cities today, the second day of fighting that has shattered truces to end a widespread rebellion two months ago.
Some of the worst clashes occurred in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, where the Health Ministry said 19 people were killed and 111 wounded during fighting Thursday and early today between U.S. troops and al-Sadr militants. Al-Sadr's followers were blamed for separate attacks that wounded 15 American soldiers in Baghdad.
The fighting began Thursday in the holy city of Najaf and has since spread to other areas across the country, and dozens have been reported killed and wounded. Also today, members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia seized four police stations in Amarah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad, witnesses said.
Helicopter gunships pounded militant positions in fierce fighting in Najaf, while Italian soldiers exchanged gunfire with militants who attacked their positions and a police station in the southern city of Nasiriyah, an Italian military spokesman said. Clashes were also reported today between U.S. troops and insurgents north of the capital in Samarra.
In April, the Mahdi Army militia launched sustained attacks on U.S. and coalition troops in several cities, the first major Shiite violence against the Americans. The confrontation dragged on for two months until Iraqi politicians and religious leaders worked out a series of truces.
Each side blamed the other for breaking the ceasefire. The U.S. military accused the militants of repeatedly attacking police in Najaf, and al-Sadr loyalists accused U.S. forces of surrounding the cleric's house Monday.
"We hold the American troops and the governor of Najaf totally accountable for the state the crisis has reached to now," Mahmoud al-Sudani, a spokesman of al-Sadr in Baghdad, told reporters. He called on the United Nations and Iraq's interim government to stop the violence.
"From our side we did not want to escalate the situation, because the situation in Najaf affects that of other Shiite areas," he said. "But the actions of the American troops have enraged the sons of these cities."
In Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, U.S. helicopters attacked militants today who were hiding in a cemetery near the Imam Ali Shrine in the old city at Najaf's center, where smoke could be seen rising.
Advanced toward area
Gunfire and explosions rang out as U.S. soldiers and Iraqi policemen advanced toward the area, witnesses said. The streets were otherwise deserted and shops were closed.
"The area near the [Imam Ali Shrine] is being subjected to a war," said Ahmed al-Shaibany, an official with al-Sadr's office in Najaf. "Najaf is being subjected to ... total destruction," he said.
"We call on the Islamic world and the civilized world to save the city."
The U.S. military has accused the militants of hiding in the shrine compound to avoid retaliation by U.S. forces. It had no comment on today's clashes.
Battles between the two sides in Najaf have killed at least 10 people and wounded 40 others, according to Hussein Hadi of Najaf General Hospital official. The U.S. military said Thursday it had lost one soldier in the battle, killed seven militants and detained dozens of people.
In Samarra, 60 miles north of the capital, guerrillas attacked a convoy of 10 U.S. Humvees at dawn, witnesses said. U.S. helicopters fired rockets at insurgent positions, and the U.S. convoy pulled out.
Ahmed Jadou'a, an official at Samarra Hospital, said at least two people were killed and 16 injured during the fighting. Two houses were also destroyed.
In the southern city of Nasiriyah, assailants attacked Italian troops with automatic weapons, an Italian military spokesman said on condition of anonymity. They also attacked a police station, prompting the local governor to call for Italian military assistance, he said. There were no coalition casualties, the spokesman said.