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Thursday, April 08, 2004 - Page updated at 10:03 A.M.

U.S. hits Fallujah mosque complex; Rumsfeld signals tour extensions

By Seattle Times news services

HAYNE PALMOUR IV / AP
An Iraqi Special Forces soldier yells at other soldiers yesterday as they and Marines clear an apartment building in Fallujah, Iraq. The city has been the scene of intense fighting in recent days, and restoring order is one of the key tasks facing U.S. forces.
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FALLUJAH, Iraq — U.S. forces battling for control of this city bombed a mosque complex yesterday after hours of fierce fighting, as Pentagon officials said they may extend some soldiers' tours of duty to quell the violence flaring across the country.

At the same time, U.S.-led troops continued to skirmish with armed supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and cities in southern Iraq.

Al-Sadr, who is wanted in the slaying of a rival cleric, said Iraq would become "another Vietnam" for the United States.

"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 a statement issued from his office in the southern city of Najaf. "Otherwise, Iraq will be another Vietnam for America and the occupiers."

Witnesses said 40 Iraqis died in the airstrike on the mosque complex, which U.S. forces said Sunni Muslim insurgents had been using as a launching pad for attacks. Marines said they could confirm only one Iraqi was killed. The fighting also left one Marine dead and four injured.

U.S. aircraft, a Cobra helicopter and an F-16 fighter launched a Hellfire missile at the mosque's minaret and dropped a 500-pound bomb on a wall surrounding the compound.

The bombing of the Abdel-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque complex led scores of locals — who had been afraid to leave their homes in recent days — to protest in the streets.

During fighting elsewhere in Fallujah, U.S. forces seized a second place of prayer, the al-Muadidi mosque.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesman in Iraq, said the Marines did not attack that mosque until it became clear enemy fighters were inside and using it to cover their attacks.

He said the mosque was protected under the Geneva Convention but that the insurgents nullified that by attacking from the holy place.

Uncertainty over al-Sadr

In Baghdad, coalition officials gave little indication of what step they would take next against al-Sadr, who was believed to be hiding in Najaf. Some observers fear arresting him could spur riots nationwide.

Behind the scenes, Shiite clerics feverishly negotiated with al-Sadr and met with a widely popular cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to urge him to use his influence with the 30-year-old firebrand cleric. Publicly, though, Sistani only issued a statement that seemed to denounce both sides.

"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," said a statement issued by Sistani's office in Najaf.

Sistani, a reclusive cleric who commands huge support among Iraq's Shiite majority, has led opposition to a U.S. political plan for transferring power to Iraqis without first holding an election. His objections have several times threatened to hold up the plan to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30.

Al-Sadr has said in recent days that he is prepared to act as Sistani's "striking hand" in Iraq, and said he had the older cleric's support.

Sheik Fatin Kashif al Ghitta, a Najaf native and a chief adviser to a member of the Governing Council, said negotiators were trying to find a way for al-Sadr to surrender without being humiliated. One option would be for him to give himself up to tribal leaders, who would be responsible for detaining him.

It seemed unlikely, however, that the U.S.-led coalition would agree to such an arrangement.

In Crawford, Texas, President Bush spent the day at his ranch, consulting with military commanders and his national security team and speaking by phone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is to visit Washington next week.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan blamed the unrest on "a relatively small number of extremist elements" and said the fighting did not amount to a return to "major combat" in Iraq.

Religious events ahead

U.S. commanders, however, said they fear violence could escalate during the religious ceremonies this weekend for al-Arbaeen, when millions of pilgrims gather in Shiite cities to mark the end of the mourning period for a seventh-century martyred Shiite saint.

Since Sunday, 34 Americans, two other coalition soldiers and more than 230 Iraqis have been killed in fighting. The Iraqi figure does not include those killed at the mosque. Since the war began, at least 630 U.S. service members have died.

There are 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, 20,000 more than called for under the current Pentagon plan because newly arrived units are overlapping with those they are replacing. But some soldiers who had planned to depart soon have been ordered to remain on duty, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said.

In a briefing to reporters, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signaled extensions were likely.

"We're taking advantage of that (temporary troop) increase, and we will likely be managing the pace of the redeployments to allow those seasoned troops with experience and relationships with the local populations to see the current situation through," he said.

Among the key tasks facing U.S. forces is pacifying Fallujah. The job took on added urgency last week after four U.S. security contractors were killed and their bodies mutilated by an angry mob. Marines cordoned off the city late Sunday and began an operation to regain control.

Coalition forces also waged heavy gunbattles with al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army in the streets of at least six cities yesterday, and for the first time, in the north.

Iraqis protesting the Fallujah operation clashed with U.S. troops outside the northern city of Kirkuk. The battles left eight Iraqis dead and 10 wounded.

Al-Sadr fighters battled American troops in the town of Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, hitting a U.S. helicopter with small arms fire. The two crew members were unharmed.

And Shiite gunmen drove Ukrainian forces out of the southern city of Kut, raising concerns over the ability of U.S. allies to combat al-Sadr's uprising.

The al-Mahdi Army also had virtual control of the Shiite religious centers of Kufa and Karbala, where Iraqi police were laying low.

Militiamen in Karbala clashed with Polish patrols, and a cleric who was a senior official in al-Sadr's office was killed.

Marines said they are looking into whether there has been coordination between insurgents in Fallujah and Ramadi, noting that attacks occurred in the cities at nearly the same time Tuesday.

Evidence continued to build that Shiite and Sunni Muslims have set aside centuries of rivalry and hatred and joined to fight the United States. One coalition official said that such a scenario would make occupation of Iraq "significantly more dangerous."

A Shiite leader in Baghdad's Sadr City said Sunnis and Shiites had been talking for weeks about how to join forces against the U.S.-led coalition.

Rumors heightened the tension: Those involved in the insurgency said Sunnis, Shiites and even Palestinians would gather in a war summit in Sadr City today.

Coalition officials at all levels continued to scoff at al-Sadr and his forces. One adviser in the coalition legal office privately called al-Sadr "a stupid little man." He said it was unlikely al-Sadr had formed a coalition with Sunnis and Palestinians.

Rumsfeld called the violence the work of "thugs and assassins" who don't represent the majority of Iraqis.

"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."

But there were some signs of a Shiite-Sunni alliance:

• The BBC reported that Shiite fighters had entered a Sunni mosque Monday, recruiting volunteers to donate blood for the resistance. The volunteers "together agreed on a wide-range attack ... on the Americans," the BBC reported.

• In Ramadi, a traditional Sunni stronghold, witnesses said Marines were fighting soldiers who were dressed like members of the al-Mahdi Army.

• In traditionally Sunni areas of southern and central Baghdad, pro-Sadr posters and literature were widely circulated.

• Monday night in Baghdad, al-Sadr gunmen went to a mainly Sunni neighborhood to join with insurgents in firing on U.S. Humvees — the only known instance of Sunni and Shiite militants combining forces.

Compiled from The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, The Washington Post and Knight Ridder Newspapers.


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