Wed, Apr 07, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Al-Sadr loyalists clash with troops in southern Iraq

REUTERS , NAJAF, IRAQ

Militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr fought gun battles with foreign troops in southern Iraq yesterday, with their leaders vowing to resist the US-led occupation.

The US has vowed to arrest Sadr, accused of leading a wave of bloody confrontations with US-led forces.

But his supporters vowed yesterday to fight until occupying troops left populated areas and prisoners were released.

Fighting between his followers and Italian troops in Nassiriya killed around 15 Iraqis and in the town of Kut witnesses said two Ukrainian armored vehicles were in flames.

Sadr's militia, known as the Mehdi Army, has held violent protests and launched attacks in several Iraqi cities in recent days to protest the detention of one of his aides and the closure of a militant newspaper by US-led authorities.

"This insurrection shows that the Iraqi people are not satisfied with the occupation and they will not accept oppression," said a statement from the cleric, which an aide read at a news conference in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

The US army said three more American soldiers had been killed in Shiite areas of Baghdad.

Heavy fighting was also reported in the Sunni Muslim towns of Falluja and Ramadi, west of Baghdad, as US Marines mounted a major operation to root out guerrillas. Residents said gunfire and blasts were echoing across Falluja.

US troops have long faced daily attacks in the "Sunni triangle," including Falluja. But the fighting in Shiite Muslim areas represents a new front for occupying troops trying to pacify the country ahead of a June 30 handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi government.

US President George W. Bush has insisted the violence by Sadr's supporters would not derail Washington's plans for Iraq.

But a new opinion poll showed support among US voters for Bush's handling of Iraq had fallen to a new low of 40 percent -- down 19 points since mid-January.

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