US army says kills at least 20 Iraqi militiamen
U.S. troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles killed at least 20 militiamen loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in fierce fighting in the holy Shi'ite city of Kerbala, a senior U.S. military officer said.
Locals said the fighting erupted on Tuesday evening and was still going on as dawn broke, with members of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia holed up in a mosque and surrounded by U.S. forces.
Earlier, Kerbala health director Faleh al-Hasnawi told Reuters at least seven Iraqis had been killed.
"Five Iraqis were killed in the clashes, two of them fighters from the Mehdi Army," he said. "Twelve people were wounded and a hotel and several houses near the Mehdi Army compound were destroyed."
Witnesses said U.S. forces using loudspeakers were urging the militiamen to surrender their weapons and to leave the mosque compound.
Iraqi police set up checkpoints around the city, 70 miles southwest of Baghdad.
Sadr's militia launched an uprising against occupying troops last month. U.S. officials vowed to kill or capture him, but recently backed away from that stance, preferring to stress they would support a solution worked out by Iraqis.
Sadr is in Najaf -- another Shi'ite holy city -- and has sworn to resist efforts to detain him.
Senior aides to Sadr in Najaf said on Tuesday they had agreed with other Shi'ite Muslim factions that the cleric could pull his Mehdi Army militia out of the city if U.S. forces also withdrew.
"Agreement has been reached on all points of contention. This agreement represents all shades of the Shi'ite political spectrum," Qais al-Khazali, Sadr's chief aide in Najaf, told Reuters after a meeting with rival Shi'ite leaders.
"This is the beginning of a solution to the crisis that endangers everyone," said Abu Hassan Amari, head of the Badr Brigades militia which is loyal to the rival Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
There was no initial response from the U.S. military which occupies a small base and other buildings in Najaf but has kept away from the holy shrines where Sadr and his fighters took refuge as the month-long insurgency stalled.
But earlier, the U.S. commander in the area, Major General Martin Dempsey, said his forces were prepared to hand over security in Najaf to a locally raised security force which could include members of Sadr's Mehdi Army.
Rival Shi'ite leaders have appeared particularly anxious to end the standoff in Najaf as local irritation with its economic impact has grown and fears have mounted that fighting could break out among various armed Shi'ite groups across the south.