12 US Marines, 66 Iraqis killed in battles
Insurgents and rebellious Shiites mounted a string of attacks across Iraq's south and U.S. Marines launched a major assault on the turbulent city of Fallujah on Tuesday. Up to a dozen Marines, two more coalition soldiers and at least 66 Iraqis were reported killed.
U.S. authorities also launched a crackdown on radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr al-Sadr and his militia after a series of weekend uprisings in Baghdad and cities and towns to the south that took a heavy toll in both American and Iraqi lives. The fighting marks the first major outbreak of violence between the U.S.-led occupation force and the Shiites since Baghdad fell a year ago.
Two more coalition soldiers - an American in Baghdad and a Ukrainian in Kut - were killed in fighting. The deaths brought the three-day total to up to about 30 Americans and 136 Iraqis killed in the worst fighting since the war that toppled Saddam Hussein.
In the Ramadi fighting, heavy casualties were inflicted on the insurgents as well, officials said. It was not immediately known who the attackers were, nor whether the attack was related to fighting under way in nearby Fallujah.
On the Fallujah front, Marines drove into the center of the Sunni city in heavy fighting before pulling back before nightfall. The assault had been promised after the brutal killings and mutilations of four American civilians there last week. Hospital officials said eight Iraqis died Tuesday and 20 were wounded, including women and children.
U.S. warplanes firing rockets destroyed four houses in Fallujah after nightfall Tuesday, witnesses said. A doctor said 26 Iraqis, including women and children, were killed and 30 wounded in the strike. The deaths brought to 34 the number of Iraqis killed in Fallujah on Tuesday, including eight who died in street battles earlier in the day.
The dusty, Euphrates River city 35 miles west of Baghdad is a stronghold of the anti-U.S. insurgency that sprang up shortly after Saddam's ouster a year ago.
With fighting intensifying ahead of the June 30 handover of power to an Iraqi government, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said American commanders in Iraq would get additional troops if needed. None has asked so far, he said.
State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said al-Sadr and his followers were not representative of a religious cause but of "political gangsterism."
The 30-year-old al-Sadr, however, does not have a large following among majority Shiites - many see him as a renegade, too young and too headstrong to lead wisely.
"They're not acting in the name of religion, they're acting in the name of arrogating for themselves political power and influence through violence, because they can't get it through peaceful persuasion," he said.
Five Marines were killed Monday - one in Fallujah and the others on the western outskirts of Baghdad. A U.S. soldier was killed in Baghdad Tuesday, a day after two more were killed there. On Sunday, two soldiers were killed in Kirkuk and Mosul. Excluding the report out of Ramadi on Tuesday evening, at least 614 American troops have died in Iraq since the war began.
Marines waged a fierce battle for hours Tuesday with gunmen holed up in a residential neighborhood of Fallujah. The military used a deadly AC-130 gunship to lay down a barrage of fire against guerrillas, and commanders said Marines were holding an area several blocks deep inside the city. At least two Marines were wounded.
The crackdown on al-Sadr, who has drawn backing from young and impoverished Shiites with rousing sermons demanding a U.S. withdrawal, sent his black-garbed militiamen against coalition troops Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
Fighting in the southern cities of Nasiriyah, Kut, Karbala and Amarah and in a northern Baghdad neighborhood killed 30 Iraqis, coalition military officials said. Tuesday evening, gunfire was heard in another part of Baghdad, Sadr City, where fierce battles occurred Sunday, residents said.
Fearing a U.S. move to arrest him, al-Sadr on Tuesday left a fortress-like mosque in the city of Kufa, south of Baghdad, where he had been holed up for days, his aides said.
Al-Sadr issued a statement saying he was ready to die to oust the Americans. He urged his followers to resist foreign forces.
"America has shown its evil intentions, and the proud Iraqi people cannot accept it. They must defend their rights by any means they see fit," the al-Sadr statement said.
"I'm prepared to have my own blood shed for what is holy to me," he said.
Al-Sadr moved to his main office in Najaf, in an alley near the city's holiest shrine, according to a top aide, Sheik Qays al-Khaz'ali. Hundreds of militiamen were protecting the office Tuesday, but there was no independent confirmation al-Sadr was there.
Perhaps more worrisome than the current fight with al-Sadr's forces is the possibility that he will start drawing support from more mainstream Shiite leaders who have largely supported the Americans until now.
The U.S.-led coalition announced a murder warrant against al-Sadr on Monday and suggested it would move to capture him soon. U.S. officials would not explain why they were only releasing word of the warrant Monday. They said an unnamed Iraqi judge had issued it in the past months.
Still, the heavy battles over the past three days showed that even with limited backing, al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army militia is capable of a damaging fight.
The militiamen clashed with coalition troops Sunday in Baghdad and outside Najaf in fierce fighting that killed 61 people, including eight American soldiers.
In Nasiriyah on Tuesday, 15 Iraqis were killed and 35 wounded in clashes between militiamen and Italian troops, coalition spokeswoman Paola Della Casa told an Italian news agency Apcom. Eleven Italians troops were slightly wounded.
Della Casa said the Iraqi attackers used civilians as human shields, and a woman and two children were among the dead.
Fighting overnight in Amarah between al-Sadr's followers and British troops killed 15 Iraqis and wounded eight, said coalition spokesman Wun Hornbyckle.
In Kut, militiamen attacked an armored personnel carrier carrying Ukrainian soldiers, killing one and wounding five, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said. Two militiamen were killed in the fight. Ukraine has about 1,650 troops in Iraq.
U.S. Marines encircled Fallujah early Monday, and on Tuesday, they penetrated several central neighborhoods for the first time. Mortar and rocket-propelled grenade blasts were heard, and one witness said a Humvee was ablaze.
Heavy fighting also occurred between Marines entrenched in the desert and guerrillas firing from houses on Fallujah's northeast outskirts. For hours into the night, the sides traded fire, while teams of Marines moved in and out of the neighborhood, seizing buildings to use as posts and battling gunmen. Helicopters weaved overhead, firing at guerrilla hide-outs.
"We are several blocks deep in the city of Fallujah," Marine Maj. Briandon McGolwan said. He said several helicopters were hit by small arms fire, but none were downed. He said Marines had detained 14 people since Monday.
L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq, conceded not all was going smoothly as the coalition approached the June 30 handover, a date he said was inviolable.
"We have problems, there's no hiding that. But basically Iraq is on track to realize the kind of Iraq that Iraqis want and Americans want, which is a democratic Iraq," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America."