Fri, Aug 06, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Iraqi fighters shoot down US helicopter in Shiite holy city

REUTERS , NAJAF, IRAQ

Fighters loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr shot down a US helicopter yesterday in fierce clashes in the Shiite holy city of Najaf that threatened to unravel a deal to end an up-rising led by the radical cleric.

It was the heaviest fighting seen in Najaf since Sadr's rebellion in April and May. The city is home to the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam, and most Iraqi Shiites react with outrage when clashes erupt near the sacred sites.

Sadr's supporters in Basra also took to the streets and threatened attacks unless comrades they said had been detained by UK forces were released. Armed followers of Sadr also took to the streets of Shiite areas of Baghdad.

A US military spokesman said the crew of the downed helicopter were wounded and evacuated. Sadr's aides said the cleric's Mehdi Army militia had shot down the aircraft.

Iraq's health ministry said at least two people were killed in the fighting and eight wounded. One person was also killed and four wounded when a mortar round hit a hospital in the city.

An aide to Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said Sistani was receiving treatment in Najaf for heart problems and the clashes could affect his health.

"There is fear that what is happening in Najaf might affect the medical care he needs," Hamed Khafaf told reporters.

The US military said fighting began overnight when a police station was attacked by "a significant number of aggressors" believed to be members of the Mehdi Army militia.

The statement said the attackers used heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms in an assault on the police station around 3am.

"Iraqi national guardsmen quickly reinforced Iraqi police, and the two units successfully defended the station from the attackers. Upon arrival of the marines, Mehdi Army members withdrew into the city's exclusion zone. The attack is an overt violation of the ceasefire agreement reached in June," the military said.

But Sheikh Mahmoud al-Sudani, a spokesman for Sadr, said US forces and Iraqi police had attacked first.

As part of the truce agreed in June to end Sadr's uprising, US troops said they would not enter parts of Najaf. The US 1st Infantry Division, which had been in charge of security in the area, has recently been replaced by a force of marines.

An arrest warrant has been issued for Sadr in connection with the murder of a rival cleric in Najaf last year. But during truce negotiations with Sadr earlier this year, Iraqi officials said they would not seek his arrest.

In the mixed Sunni and Shiite town of Mahawil south of Baghdad, guerrillas detonated a car bomb and sprayed gunfire at a police station, killing at least six people and wounding 24, Iraqi government officials said.

Interior ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said three masked gunmen opened fire on the police station in the town, about 75km south of Baghdad, and then fled. A bomb in a minibus then exploded outside the building.

Kadhim said two senior police officers were also shot dead yesterday in the town of Musayyib, near Mahawil.

There was no new word on the fate of three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian held by kidnappers who have threatened to behead them one by one.

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