Fierce clashes across Iraq kill dozens
The top US administrator in Iraq declared a radical Shiite cleric an "outlaw" Monday after his supporters rioted in Baghdad and four other cities in fighting that killed at least 52 Iraqis, eight US troops and a Salvadoran soldier.
The fiercest battle took place on Sunday in the streets of Sadr City, Baghdad's largest Shi'ite neighbourhood, where black-garbed Shi'ite militiamen fired from rooftops and behind buildings at US troops, killing the eight Americans. At least 30 Iraqis were killed and more than 110 wounded in the fighting, doctors said.
Violence broke out Monday morning in another Shi'ite neighbourhood of the capital, al-Shula, where followers of the cleric clashed with a US patrol. An American armoured vehicle was seen burning, and an Iraqi man was seen running off with a heavy machine gun apparently taken from the vehicle. A US helicopter hovered overhead. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Meanwhile, US troops Monday sealed off Fallujah ahead of a major operation code named "Vigilant Resolve," aimed at pacifying the city, one of the most violent cities in the Sunni Triangle, the heartland of the insurgency against the American occupation.
US commanders have been vowing a massive response after insurgents killed four American security contractors in the city, west of Baghdad, on Wednesday. Residents dragged the Americans' bodies through the streets, hanging two of their charred corpses from a bridge, in horrifying scenes that showed the depth of anti-US sentiment in the city.
Some 1,200 Marines and two batallions of Iraqi security forces were poised to enter the city in a raid to capture suspected insurgents, officials said. They would not say when the sweep would begin.
A Marine was killed Monday in Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, the military said, without providing further details. On Sunday, a suicide attacker detonated a bomb-laden vehicle as he tried to enter a US base in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing one US soldier and wounding six Americans and six Iraqis, the military said. A roadside bomb killed a US soldier in the city of Mosul.
The violence pushed the US death toll in Iraq to at least 613. It was touched off by the arrest of Mustafa al-Yacoubi, a senior aide to al-Sadr, on charges of murdering Abdel-Majid al-Khoei, a rival Shi'ite cleric. A total of 25 arrest warrants have been issued in the case, and 13 suspects have been taken into custody, an official at the coalition headquarters said.
Al-Sadr supporters also were angered by the March 28 closure of his weekly newspaper by US officials. The Americans alleged the newspaper was inciting violence against coalition troops.
In other developments Monday, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with members of Iraq's Governing Council as he launched a mission to help in the transition to an interim government after sovereignty is handed back to Iraqis on June 30.
But despite the escalating violence, the Bush administration is sticking with its timetable to turn over power in Iraq.
"The United States and our coalition partners are continuing to work closely with Iraqi leaders and the Iraqi people on our plan to meet the June 30th deadline," White House spokesman Brian Besanceney said on Sunday.