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05/04/04 Iraqis frag US soldiers in firefight

Agence France-Presse
April 5, 2004
BAGHDAD (AFP) — US Apache helicopters sprayed fire on the private army of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr during fierce battles in the western Baghdad district of Al-Showla, witnesses and an AFP correspondent said. "Two Apaches opened fire on armed members of the Mehdi Army," said Showla resident Abbas Amid.

The fighting erupted when five trucks of US soldiers and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) tried to enter the district and were attacked by Sadr supporters, Amid said.

Coming under fire, the ICDC, a paramilitary force trained by the Americans, turned on the US soldiers and started to shoot at them, according to Amid. The soldiers fled their vehicles and headed for cover and then began to battle both the Mehdi Army and the ICDC members, he said. Their vehicles were set ablaze.

Heavy gunfire rattled the district and columns of black smoke billowed into the sky.

Burning tires and tree trunks were used to barricade the neighborhood, where young men toting clubs and carrying light weapons patrolled the streets. But 16 US Humvees all-terrain vehicles, backed by two tanks, rolled into Showla, the AFP correspondent said.

Tension was also running high in the Shiite-controlled Sadr City slum in northern Baghdad, a day after pitched battles between Sadr partisans and the US military left 22 Iraqis dead and 85 others wounded, and killed seven US troops.

US troops opened fire Monday wounding a child after a group of children stoned soldiers deployed outside the Karama police station, an AFP correspondent said.

Amer al-Hussein, a spokesman for Sadr in the impoverished neighborhood, told AFP that the incendiary Shiite leader had "called for a return to calm but his partisans want to fight against the American troops". "We want peace not confrontations but if the Americans enter our neighborhood, there will be a fight," Hussein said. He said that US troops had arrested militiamen from Sadr's Mehdi Army but the report could not be immediately confirmed by the US military.

Three US tanks blocked the two entrances to Sadr City and soldiers searched cars while helicopters flew overhead. US troops also reclaimed the main police station which Sadr backers had seized Sunday. The seven US soldiers died Sunday fighting for control of police and public buildings in the Shiite suburb.

Thousands of people, some of them armed, gathered outside Sadr's offices in Sadr City to take part in the funeral of people killed in Sunday's fierce fighting.

"There is only one God. America is the enemy of Allah," the crowd chanted as a coffin was carried through the streets. The uprising by Sadr's supporters also raged on elsewhere as they seized the governor's office in the British-controlled southern port city of Basra, an AFP correspondent on the scene said.

Dozens of armed Mehdi Army militiamen stormed the governor's office at dawn Monday, raising a green Islamic flag on the roof, he said. Four hours later British troops were no longer in the area while policemen who had been inside the building when it was overrun were seen deployed alongside the Medhi Army militiamen.

In the deadliest clashes, at least 20 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in fighting Sunday between the Mehdi Army and Spanish-led coalition forces in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. A Salvador soldier also died. Another four were killed in similar clashes between British-led forces and Sadr's supporters in the southern city of Amara. Sadr told his followers on Sunday to "terrorize" the enemy because protests had become useless. It was not clear whether Sadr's call was an order to resort to violence.

Tensions had boiled over with the arrest of a top Sadr aide in connection with the murder of a rival cleric last year and after the shutting down of a pro-Sadr newspaper last month.

Published by Agence France-Presse

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