U.S. Troops Kill 57 Insurgents in Battle Near Najaf

April 27, 2004

New York Times
 By JOHN F. BURNS

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 27 - American troops killed 57
insurgents in a brief but furious overnight battle near the
southern town of Kufa, an American official said today.
There were no reports of American casualties in that fight,
but American troops suffered a death in Baghdad, where an
American soldier was killed in an ambush near the tense
neighborhood of Sadr City, the official, Brig. Gen. Mark
Kimmitt, said. Officials believe the insurgents near Kufa were members of
the Mahdi Army, a militia headed by the radical Shiite
cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who has led a three-week uprising
against the coalition. The Mahdi Army is in control of Kufa
and the nearby town of Najaf.

The clash occurred after insurgents loosed rocket-propelled
grenades and anti-aircraft fire at an M-1 tank patrolling
the eastern side of the Euphrates River near Kufa, said
General Kimmitt, the chief spokesman for the American
command. American forces called in attack helicopters to
supplement ground troops, killing the 57 insurgents.

In an earlier clash near the same location, seven rebels
were killed after they ambushed a patrol with small-arms
fire, the official said.

American troops have moved in to replace departed Spanish
troops at bases between Kufa and Najaf, but General Kimmitt
emphasized today that coalition troops had not conducted
operations in either city, both of which are Shiite
religious centers. American officials have avoided taking
the fight inside the cities for fear of inciting wider
opposition and bloodshed, and instead have pursued
negotiations, fruitless so far, to end the standoff with
Mr. Sadr's militia.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said
at a news briefing that there was no need to end the talks
hurriedly. "If at some point the military decides that the
string has run out, then they will tell us that and take
appropriate action," Mr. Rumsfeld said."

Mr. Rumsfeld said in response to a question that he had not
second-guessed himself about the number of American
soldiers in Iraq. "The number of troops that went into Iraq
and that have been in Iraq every month over the past 12
months have been the number that the combat commanders and
their sub-commanders have decided was appropriate," he
said.

In the only reported death today among American troops, one
soldier was killed and another wounded when their patrol
was attacked near Sadr City, General Kimmitt said. He
offered no further information about the incident.

Still, American officials at the daily news briefing here
seemed to want to convey a more upbeat estimation of
American progress in subduing rebels in the south and in
Falluja, where American troops have established a cordon
and are trying to squeeze a Sunni Muslim rebellion into
submission.

General Kimmitt stressed that negotiations continued with
civil leaders in Falluja and that the city had experienced
only three violations of a cease-fire in the last 24 hours.
He said the authorities felt there had been sufficient
"intangible progress" toward a peaceful settlement of the
standoff to forestall an invasion of the city.

"The negotiations, in the minds of the commanders on the
ground, are continuing to go well," the general said.
"There doesn't seem to be any significant backsliding on
the part of the enemy."

The officials also said they were forced to delay joint
patrolling by American troops and Iraqi security forces
because the Iraqis had not yet received sufficient
training. The officials had hoped to begin those patrols
today but suggested that they may begin in the next few
days. The plan was put forward by Falluja civic leaders on
Sunday to avert an American invasion of the city.

American authorities trying to roll back the tenacious
insurgencies in hopes of a peaceful transfer of sovereignty
on June 30 have been heartened in recent days by the
increasing emergence of Iraqi voices opposed to the
resistance.

"I think, below the radar screen, perhaps, of some of the
press, some of the Western press, I think there is a real
discussion going on," Dan Senor, a spokesman for the
Coalition Provisional Authority, said. "There is a real
debate among Iraqis, and more and more Iraqi leaders are
beginning to emerge and speaking out about which direction
this country should go in light of the events that have
occurred here over the past few weeks, and we think that
that is a positive sign."

The overnight fighting near Kufa came hours after a
protracted firefight between marines and insurgents in a
Falluja suburb culminated in an American tank round
toppling a mosque's minaret, further dimming hopes for a
peaceful resolution to the three-week-old siege there.

The American command said the battle had erupted when
insurgents breaching a shaky cease-fire in Falluja, 30
miles west of Baghdad, used the mosque to attack Marine
positions with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms
fire. After two hours pinned down by fire, the Marines
called in helicopters and tanks, which directed
"suppressing fire" at the mosque, the command said.

One American marine was killed and eight were wounded in
the battle, which also left eight insurgents dead, an
American spokesman said.

General Kimmitt said today that the mosque had lost its
protected status as a holy site under the Geneva Convention
when rebels used it as a firing point. He said they were
using the mosque "to create a wedge" between Americans and
Iraqis.

But he emphasized today that once peace was restored in
Iraq, American forces would rebuild the minaret with the
people of Falluja.

American commanders say the contrast between their
willingness to engage in confrontation in Falluja, a Sunni
Muslim stronghold, and their more restrained approach in
Najaf, holy to Shiite Muslims the world over, reflects the
distinct challenges of the two centers of resistance.

Reports from inside Najaf said the growing anger of
residents there against Mr. Sadr and his men, who have sown
a pattern of lawlessness since their uprising in the city
began this month, had taken a startling new turn, with a
shadowy group killing at least five militiamen on Sunday
and Monday.

Those reports, from residents who reached relatives in
Baghdad by telephone, said the killers called themselves
the Thulfiqar Army, after a two-bladed sword that Shiite
tradition says was used by the patron saint of Shia, Imam
Ali, the martyred son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. The
group distributed leaflets in Najaf threatening to kill
members of Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army unless they fled Najaf
immediately, according to accounts.

One Najaf resident said some of Mr. Sadr's militiamen were
shedding the black clothing that has been their signature.
The same resident said that he knew of two killings of
Mahdi Army members on Sunday and that three others had been
killed later on Sunday or Monday.

If reports of violence against Mr. Sadr's followers
suggested that the American occupiers might be seeing the
beginnings of Iraqis' taking action of their own to curb
the cleric - as L. Paul Bremer III, the chief American
administrator, has urged - events in Baghdad on Monday
underscored how potent a force Mr. Sadr remains, at least
among many young Shiites who have found a release from
their impoverishment in the cleric's anti-American oratory.


On Monday, troops raiding a chemical storage warehouse in
Baghdad were caught in a huge explosion that sent a tower
of white smoke roiling hundreds of feet into the air and
tons of masonry cascading onto a busy street. The American
command said two soldiers had been killed and five others
wounded; at least eight Iraqi civilians were hurt. Four
American Humvees were set on fire.

American military spokesmen withheld details of the blast's
cause. One report by a witness suggested that it had been
set off by a spark as the troops broke into the warehouse.
Another possibility was that the Americans, belonging to
the Iraq Survey Group, set up to search for illegal
weapons, could have stumbled into a trap set when an
informant reported that the chemical store's owner and his
associates were supplying chemical agents to "terrorists,
criminals and insurgents," as a command statement put it.

The explosion set the scene for another frenzied
demonstration of anti-American feeling, with young men
dancing on top of the burned Humvees. Others rushed up to
television crews with American helmets, and placed one on
the head of a donkey. Still others ran down the street
displaying charred remnants of chemical-weapons clothing
from the Humvees, some with shoulder patches bearing the
survey group's motto, "Find, exploit, eliminate."

The explosion offered a rare glimpse into the mostly unseen
work of the survey group. Their efforts have been largely
unavailing, and the ill-fated search on Monday, at a row of
stores that provide chemicals for the cosmetics industry,
suggested something of the complexities involved.

General Kimmitt said the tip-off that drew the survey group
to raid the store suggested that it was used to produce
"chemical munitions" as well as chemical agents used in
insurgents' bomb-making. Asked to identify the munitions,
he replied, "It could be smoke, it could be anything,"
meaning smoke bombs. He added, "But it apparently had
enough credibility to it, the information, that we sent
coalition forces in to do the inspection."

At perfume shops along the street, owners sweeping up
shards of glass from the explosion pointed to rows of
decanters labeled with the names of scents. Hamad Taha, 39,
one proprietor, was incredulous. "The American forces are
always coming and searching this area because they think
people are providing the raw chemicals for explosives," he
said. "We have ethanol, alcohol and acetone for nail polish
remover and cosmetics, as well as chemicals for
perfume-making. Instead of breaking the door of the store
down, the Americans should have asked us to explain it all
to them."

When the perfume makers' protests were relayed to General
Kimmitt, it was his turn to be incredulous. "There was
quite an explosion inside that building, which cost the
life of two coalition soldiers, injured a number of them
and a number of Iraqi civilians," he said. "So if it was
making lipstick, that's some pretty high-test lipstick."

At Falluja, the fighting around the mosque underscored the
odds against a lasting breakthrough to avert a military
showdown. The agreement on Sunday to have joint American
and Iraqi patrols through the city came as a huge relief to
many Iraqis, especially in Baghdad, where there were fears
that a resumed Marine offensive could set off a wave of
anti-American violence.

But the Monday events revived the widespread conviction
that both sides have made Falluja a watershed of the wider
Iraqi struggle, and that neither the American forces nor
the insurgents will back down. If the battle at the mosque
suggested that the insurgents were still a long way from
submitting, it also showed the marines' willingness to use
some of their heaviest weapons against them.

General Kimmitt said the marines had reacted to the first
volleys from the mosque, in the northwestern district of
Jolan, by advancing under fire, then pausing to allow the
insurgents a chance to surrender. When nobody emerged, the
general said, marines went in and found the mosque
deserted, "with the exception of a significant amount of
expended shell casings in the minaret."

He said the Americans had then pulled back, only to take
renewed fire from the mosque.

Kirk Semple contributed reporting from New York for this
article.

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