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The Conflict in Iraq

4 Iraqis Killed in Holy City Fighting

A battle breaks out as troops approach a mosque. Shiites say U.S. breached cease-fire.

June 03, 2004|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

KUFA, Iraq — At least four Iraqis were killed and 36 injured Wednesday as fighting continued between U.S. troops and militiamen in the holy cities of Najaf and Kufa, hospital officials and witnesses said. No U.S. casualties were reported.

Clashes erupted around dusk when U.S. tanks approached the Kufa mosque, controlled by dozens of militiamen loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr. Gunfire and bombing sent nearby residents fleeing, witnesses said.

A spokesman for Shiite leaders attempting to negotiate a settlement accused U.S. forces of violating the cease-fire by attacking the mosque.

"The current events clearly show that the occupation forces are not sticking by their commitment to the cease-fire," said Heider Sufi, spokesman for the House of Shia in Najaf. "We hold the occupation forces responsible for these casualties." U.S. military officials said three teams of tanks and armored vehicles approached the Kufa mosque to inspect a nearby school suspected of being a base for mortar attacks against American troops.

Tanks approaching the school quickly came under small-arms fire, and returned fire with .50-caliber machine guns and other weapons.

"We drew their fire, and we returned it," said Capt. Brandon Payne, 28, commander of the operation. "Every time we go out, we pick away at [the enemy's] defenses." The street leading to the mosque quickly cleared of pedestrians and traffic as buildings began spitting dust and bricks under the attack. Some Iraqis a few blocks away came out to watch the half-hour fight.

U.S. soldiers were ordered to avoid firing at the mosque.

Later, the three teams approached the Kufa mosque from the opposite direction in an attempt to draw insurgent fire. Militants attacked with rocket-propelled grenades, small arms and mortars as U.S. vehicles wound between mud-and-brick walls and palm groves. Soldiers said insurgents were using the mosque's minarets to guide mortar attacks.

In a separate incident, the U.S. military base between Najaf and Kufa came under mortar attack, raising large dust clouds near the army command center. A mortar shell also landed in a stadium near the base, causing the military to temporarily cancel a weapons buy-back program at the facility.

A Times special correspondent in Najaf contributed to this report.

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