Deadly Fighting Mars Cease-Fire in Holy City

Times Staff Writer

Followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr attacked and briefly seized a police station in Najaf on Thursday, the second truce violation in troubled Iraqi cities in two days.

Six Iraqis were killed in the fighting that erupted a week into a cease-fire between Sadr’s forces and U.S. troops, who had been battling in the holy city. The fighting came a day after a skirmish in Fallouja between another band of insurgents and a U.S.-appointed Iraqi force broke a shaky peace in that city.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, downplayed the attacks, saying U.S. officials were not worried.


“Neither of these instances indicates that there is a breakdown in the arrangements that we have in either Fallouja or Najaf,” he said. “If the trend continues and elevates over the next couple of days, we may make a different assessment.”

Sadr spokesman Qais Khazali also said the Najaf truce remained in place. He told reporters that the cleric’s Al Mahdi militia was unwittingly drawn into a clash between police and civilians.

In the agreement reached last week, the U.S. Army said it would stay away from shrines in Najaf and nearby Kufa and have Iraqi police officers help patrol the cities, while Sadr agreed to pull his forces from holy sites in which they had bunkered and send home fighters who were not local residents.

The resurgent Najaf fighting began around midnight and lasted until midday Thursday, witnesses said. Police and witnesses said the fighting began when officers attempted to arrest suspected thieves near the station and were fired upon by Sadr supporters. The masked militiamen fired guns and rocket-propelled grenades at the police station.

Najaf officials said the station was overrun for several hours by Al Mahdi fighters. Witnesses said the Sadr troops also had detained several officers. Raad Mohammed, 25, said he saw six policemen held by the militants.

Sadr supporters looted the station before they left, witnesses said. In addition, at least five police cars were shot up and looted.


Sadr spokesman Khazali disputed the police account of the origin of the fighting. He said the battle began when police tried to evict a Muslim group from an office building.

The dispute turned into a gunfight, which Al Mahdi members nearby mistook for an attack on them, Khazali said.

Khazali said three Al Mahdi fighters were killed. It was unknown whether the others killed were police officers. Hospital officials said 29 people were injured, including eight children.

U.S. forces did not take part in the fighting.

Najaf’s streets, which had begun to come back to life, were empty Thursday after the fighting. At Sadr’s office, a man and woman said they had come from Iran and wished to join the fighting.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military announced today that a soldier, whom it did not name, has died from wounds suffered Wednesday in an ambush in Baghdad. About 825 service members have died in the war.

Violence has been relentless preceding the June 30 transfer of power from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqis. The lack of security has angered Iraqi citizens and made it difficult to provide essential services and utilities such as electricity, water and gasoline, as facilities are regularly hit.


Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi called on people to “defeat those saboteurs.” He termed those responsible for the attacks on facilities “terrorists and foreign fighters opposed to our very survival as a free state.”

Allawi said there had been 130 attacks on oil facilities in the last seven months, causing $200 million in damage. “It is our people who are sitting in the dark because of these cowardly and traitorous attacks, not our occupiers,” he said.

On Wednesday, saboteurs disabled two oil pipelines in northern Iraq. One of the lines delivered fuel to a power plant; the damage hampered efforts to restore regular electricity.

Four Iraqi local officials from the city of Samawah were killed Wednesday when their pickup truck was riddled with bullets south of Baghdad.

Times staff writer Edmund Sanders and special correspondents in Najaf and Samawah contributed to this report. Associated Press was used in compiling it.