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Thursday, May 13, 2004 - Page updated at 01:01 A.M.
U.S. forces pursue militia into heart of two holy cities
By Scott Wilson and Daniel Williams
In Karbala, U.S.-led forces worked with Iraqi police officers to seize a suspected weapons stockpile of the Al-Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a young Shiite cleric who has emerged as a chief nemesis of the U.S. occupation. Troops came under rifle and mortar fire before dawn, U.S. officials said, setting off daylong street battles involving tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and helicopters.
After dark, in the city of Najaf further south, U.S. forces attacked militia positions not far from the Shrine of Ali, one of Shiite Islam's most sacred mosques. Insurgents took up refuge in Najaf's vast and sand-covered cemetery, the most coveted burial site for Shiite Muslims. U.S. officials said the fighters hid behind tombs and staged rocket-propelled grenade and mortar attacks from the sanctuary.
The combat marked an escalation in the U.S. drive to put down the al-Sadr rebellion, which has swept across southern Iraq and parts of the capital that last year had welcomed the U.S. invasion that ousted president Saddam Hussein.
During the morning raid in Karbala, 60 miles south of Baghdad, U.S. military officials said, troops discovered rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortar rounds and explosive devices for roadside bombings inside a warehouse complex and in the neighboring Mukhaiyam mosque.
The site is roughly 500 yards from the Shrines of Hussein and Abbas, second only to the Najaf mosque in terms of religious importance to Iraqi Shiites. Twenty-two insurgents were killed in the daylong fighting, U.S. officials said. They said troops were proceeding with caution inside the city's alleyways and narrow streets to avoid damaging the holy sites. Six U.S. soldiers were injured, officials said.
Witnesses said al-Sadr militants tried to storm the shrines yesterday, but were repelled by armed guards inside the mosques and U.S. army snipers positioned on nearby rooftops.
In the Baghdad slum of al-Sadr City, U.S. troops clashed yesterday with fighters loyal to al-Sadr. U.S. officials said six insurgents were killed in the sprawling slum, which is named for al-Sadr's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. The respected cleric was assassinated by suspected agents of president Saddam Hussein's government in 1999.
Al-Sadr urged fighters in Karbala to resist U.S. troops, comparing their struggle to the Vietnam War.
"We are an Iraqi people that has faith in God, and his prophet and his family," al-Sadr said. "The means of victory that are available to us are much more than what the Vietnamese had. And, God willing, we shall be victorious."
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