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April 7, 2004
Fierce Fighting With Sunnis and Shiites Spreads to 6 Iraqi Cities
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN and DOUGLAS JEHL
BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 6 -- American forces in Iraq came under fierce attack on Tuesday, with as many as 12 marines killed in Ramadi, near Baghdad, and with Shiite militiamen loyal to a rebel cleric stepping up a three-day-old assault in the southern city of Najaf, American officials said.
In Falluja, where last week American security contractors were killed and their bodies mutilated, American warplanes fired rockets at houses, and marines drove armored columns into the heart of the city, where they fought block by block to flush out insurgents. Several arrests were made.
It was one of the most violent days in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, with half a dozen cities ignited. One of the biggest questions at day's end was the role of most of the majority Shiites previously thought to be relatively sympathetic to American goals.
The heaviest fighting raged in Falluja and Ramadi, strongholds of the Sunni minority favored by Mr. Hussein that have been flash points of anti-American resistance.
Correspondents based in Falluja who work for Arab television stations reported widespread damage to homes from the firing and difficulties in getting wounded Iraqis to the hospital because the fighting was so fierce. Falluja hospital officials, quoted by The Associated Press, said they received 16 Iraqi dead on Tuesday and more than 20 wounded, among them women and children.
The attack in Ramadi was on an American base at the governor's palace, and involved several dozen insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons, a Defense Department official said.
"The indications are they were well-trained," the official said. The official said the insurgents had suffered large numbers of casualties, but cautioned that reports from Iraq were still early and sketchy.
Meanwhile, Moktada al-Sadr, a rebel Shiite cleric who is wanted by American forces in connection with a killing last year, continued to stir up his followers. In a statement issued Tuesday from Najaf, he urged disciples to keep up the fight.
"America has shown its evil intentions," Mr. Sadr said, "and the proud Iraqi people cannot accept it. They must defend their rights by any means they see fit."
He also aligned himself with Iraq's most influential religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. "I proclaim my solidarity with Ali Sistani, and he should know that I am his military wing in Iraq," he said.
Mr. Sadr, whose followers on Sunday began the most serious insurrection of the postinvasion period, said, "I will put the city with the golden dish between Ali Sistani's hands after liberation."
The golden dish refers to the golden shrines of Najaf, some of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. Najaf, south of Baghdad, is the home of Ayatollah Sistani, who is considered much more moderate than Mr. Sadr. On Sunday, Ayatollah Sistani issued a religious decree urging Iraq's Shiites to stay calm.
So far, though, followers of Mr. Sadr have not been heeding it. His black-clad militiamen have rolled over Iraqi security forces in a number of cities, including Kufa, Najaf, Nasiriya, Basra and Baghdad, and taken over government offices.
The string of successes seems to inflate Mr. Sadr's popularity and draw more recruits to his Mahdi Army , a private militia that attracts both idle youth and adults with jobs. In some cities, like Kufa, his followers have completely replaced police and security forces, essentially establishing an occupation-free zone and patrolling towns in blue and white government cars that just days ago were driven by the newly formed Iraqi security forces.
Mr. Sadr has moved from a mosque in Kufa, where he was holed up Monday, to his main office in Najaf, in an alley near the city's holiest shrine. Hundreds of militiamen were protecting the office. On Tuesday night, military flares could be seen burning over the area.
In the wake of the burst of violence, President Bush, speaking in El Dorado, Ark., on Tuesday, said he did not foresee changing plans to turn over sovereignty to Iraq on June 30.
"We will stay the course in Iraq," he said. "We're not going to be intimidated by thugs or assassins. We're not going to cut and run from the people who long for freedom. Because, you know what? We understand a free Iraq is an historic opportunity to help change the world to be more peaceful." In Baghdad, fighting between American forces and Mr. Sadr's militia continued, as young men with machine guns traded fire with American soldiers in several neighborhoods and braced themselves for more bloodshed. As an unseasonably cool night fell, the pounding of heavy guns echoed across the rooftops of the city.
"The people here are so angry at the Americans," said Hazem al-Aarji, one of Mr. Sadr's commanders in Baghdad. "I tell them to relax. It is not clear if they are listening."
Part of the reason for the anger is that American commanders have announced they will arrest Mr. Sadr, in connection with the knifing of a rival cleric, Ayatollah Sayyed Abdul Majid al-Khoei. Mr. Sadr, 31, has denied that he had anything to do with the killing. Americans commanders are now saying they would rather wait to capture Mr. Sadr than provoke more uprisings.
The trouble began a little more than a week ago, when the American authorities shut down Mr. Sadr's newspaper, Al Hawza, after they accused it of printing lies that incited violence. That started a cycle of protests that grew bigger and more unruly until they culminated in all-out street battles on Sunday.
Mr. Sadr, the son of a revered Shiite cleric who was assassinated in 1999, has drawn support from the masses of Shiite who welcomed the Mr. Hussein's overthrow but grew disillusioned with the American occupation. Posters of the cleric and his father are everywhere, and Mr. Sadr's bearded visage has now become the face of the resistance.
"He is expressing what we all feel," said Sabah al-Rubaidi, a 62-year-old engineer in Baghdad. "We tried to be patient. We did not fight the occupation like the Sunnis right away. But now there is no difference. The war is everywhere, north, east, south and west."
In Falluja, marines were setting up checkpoints and seeking out suspected insurgents.
At least five marines were killed in the operation in and around Falluja on Sunday and Monday, according to military officials in Washington. Four of them were killed on Monday by an improvised explosive device, the officials said.
A senior Pentagon official said Tuesday night that it was too early to tell who had carried out the attack on the Americans in Ramadi in which the marines were killed, but that at least one attacker had been captured. The official said he understood that the fighting was over.
As for Falluja, the official said: "The operations continues. There have been raids on various places in the Falluja area. A number of people have been taken into custody, and a number of people have been killed. There has been resistance."
Marines shut off main roads into Falluja, and for the second day in a row, large explosions inside the city could be heard. A sunup-to-sunset curfew was established.
"We've got the place surrounded," said Lance Cpl. Paul Valliere, as he manned a checkpoint on Monday just outside Falluja city limits. "This operation will go on for 10 days."
Sheik Ghazi al-Abid, a wealthy Falluja tribal leader, said by telephone on Monday night that American helicopters were attacking his neighbor's house. "The situation is really bad," he said. "We pray to God this will finish safely."