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05/04/04 Troops clash in Iraq, 24 dead From correspondents in Najaf, Iraq

This story is from our network Source: AFP

April 05, 2004

AT LEAST 24 people, including four Salvadoran soldiers, were killed today and 200 people wounded as Spanish-led troops clashed with backers of a Shi'ite radical leader outside this shrine city, while two US Marines were killed in western Iraq.
The US-led coalition, meanwhile, named two staunch opponents of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to head a new defence ministry and a new National Intelligence Service.

US overseer Paul Bremer said the new Iraqi security institutions will "defend the country against terrorists and insurgents", and vowed they would remain under tight civilian control.

Iraq's interim trade minister Ali Allawi was named as the country's first post-war defence minister, while Mohammad Abdullah Mohammad al-Shehwani, a former officer forced into exile by the Saddam regime, becomes intelligence chief.

Allawi pledged that Iraqi forces would not be used as a means to "threaten and blackmail" neighbouring states, in a reference to Saddam's wars against Iran and Kuwait.

In northern Iraq, a car bomb exploded in the oil centre of Kirkuk, wounding five Iraqi civilians and damaging a US military vehicle as US troops were combing the area for a suspect vehicle, police chief Shirko Shaker Halim told AFP.

But the clashes outside Najaf marked the most dangerous face-off between the coalition and Iraq's Shi'ite majority.

They coincided with demonstrations in Baghdad and the southern port of Basra as Shi'ite radicals pressed their demands for the coalition to reopen a newspaper close to firebrand Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr shut down last week.

The militants also want the release of a top Sadr aide, Mustafa al-Yaacubi, who they claim was detained yesterday.

In Najaf, Dr Hassan al-Dulami, head of health services, told AFP: "There are at least 20 dead, including two policemen, and 200 wounded in the city's six hospitals."

In Madrid, the Spanish defence ministry said four Salvadoran soldiers were killed and nine others wounded in the clashes.

Massud Barzani, the rotating president of Iraq's interim Governing Council, meanwhile condemned Sadr followers for resorting to violence in anti-coalition protests.

"Any act that leads to violence and losses among civilians and coalition (personnel) is an act that we sternly condemn and we hope that everybody would resort to peaceful and democratic means," he said.

The scion of an illustrious clerical family, Sadr has clashed several times with US forces since last summer but has intensified his verbal barrage against the coalition since it closed his weekly newspaper a week ago for inciting violence.

Today's fighting came on the eve of the expected arrival in Iraq of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi who is charged with helping resolve an impasse between the coalition and the Shi'ites over the nation's political future.

On the highway out of Najaf, an AFP correspondent saw at least 20 people lying wounded on the ground, three of them clerics, amid the sound of explosions and gunfire. Ambulances rushed to the scene as US helicopters and jets flew overhead.

Accounts varied on how the fighting started.

An AFP correspondent said the clashes began when demonstrators hurled rocks at a convoy of six vehicles from the coalition's Spanish-led Plus Ultra Brigade and started shouting at them: "No, no to America. No, no to Israel."

The convoy pulled back and then opened fire.

"The Spanish base was attacked around noon (1800 AEST) .

The assailants fired on our soldiers and they riposted by respecting rules of engagement," said Colonel Carlos Harradon, a spokesman for the Plus Utra brigade which includes Salvadoran, Honduran and Dominican soldiers.

At least some of the Sadr supporters were carrying guns and belonged to the cleric's banned Mehdi Army militia.

The demonstrators were marching from Najaf to the neighbouring shrine town of Kufa. But they had planned to stop at the Plus Ultra base to demand the release of the Sadr lieutenant, Yaacubi.

Spanish troops in Najaf have denied arresting him, while US commanders have declined to comment.

The demonstrators carried posters of Sadr and his widely revered father Mohammed Sadeq Sadr, assassinated by agents of Saddam's regime in 1999.

The Shi'ite radicals, who have consistently opposed the coalition and the interim bodies it has set up in Iraq, have mounted daily protests for the past week over the coalition's 60-day closure of their newspaper, Al-Hawza Al-Natiqa.

In Baghdad, the US military said today that two US Marines were killed in action by insurgents in the restive western Iraqi province of Al-Anbar, but gave no further details for security reasons.

The deaths bring to 602 the number of US military and defence personnel killed in action since the coalition invaded Iraq in March last year, according to an official US tally.

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