A supporter of Moqtada Al Sadr celebrates near a burning U.S. Army truck (Reuters)
As-Sadr is an outlaw. From AP:
The top U.S. administrator in Iraq declared a radical Shiite cleric an “outlaw” Monday after his supporters rioted in Baghdad and four other cities in fighting that killed at least 52 Iraqis, eight U.S. troops and a Salvadoran soldier.
The fiercest battle took place Sunday in the streets of Sadr City, Baghdad’s largest Shiite neighborhood, where black-garbed Shiite militiamen fired from rooftops and behind buildings at U.S. troops, killing the eight Americans. At least 30 Iraqis were killed and more than 110 wounded in the fighting, doctors said.
Violence broke out Monday morning in another Shiite neighborhood of the capital, al-Shula, where followers of the cleric clashed with a U.S. patrol. An American armored vehicle was seen burning, and an Iraqi man was seen running off with a heavy machine gun apparently taken from the vehicle. A U.S. helicopter hovered overhead. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops on Monday sealed off Fallujah ahead of a major operation code named “Vigilant Resolve,” aimed at pacifying the city, one of the most violent cities in the Sunni Triangle, the heartland of the insurgency against the American occupation.
U.S. commanders have been vowing a massive response after insurgents killed four American security contractors in the city, west of Baghdad, on Wednesday. Residents dragged the Americans’ bodies through the streets, hanging two of their charred corpses from a bridge, in horrifying scenes that showed the depth of anti-U.S. sentiment in the city.
Some 1,200 Marines and two battalions of Iraqi security forces were poised to enter the city in a raid to capture suspected insurgents, officials said. They would not say when the sweep would begin.
A Marine was killed Monday in Anbar province, where Fallujah is located, the military said, without providing further details. On Sunday, a suicide attacker detonated a bomb-laden vehicle as he tried to enter a U.S. base in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing one U.S. soldier and wounding six Americans and six Iraqis, the military said. A roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier in the city of Mosul.
The violence pushed the U.S. death toll in Iraq to at least 613.
The insurgency that has plagued U.S. troops in Iraq for months has been led by Sunni Muslims. But Sunday’s clashes in Baghdad and three other cities threatened to open a dangerous new front: a confrontation with Iraq’s powerful Shiite Muslim majority, which has until now largely avoided violence with the Americans.
Hundreds were wounded in Sunday’s violence in Baghdad, Najaf, Nasiriyah and Amarah. The riots were ignited by the arrest of an aide to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Followers of al-Sadr also took over the offices of the governor in the southern city of Basra.
In response, L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, declared al-Sadr an “outlaw” who threatens Iraq’s security.
“Effectively he is attempting to establish his authority in the place of the legitimate authority. We will not tolerate this. We will reassert the law and order which the Iraqi people expect,” Bremer told a security team meeting convened to discuss how to respond to Sadr.
Bremer did not say if U.S. authorities would move to arrest al-Sadr, but the declaration stepped up the confrontation with the 30-year-old firebrand cleric, who fiercely opposes the U.S. occupation and is backed by a militia known as the “Al-Mahdi Army.”
“There is no room for militias in the new Iraq. … If there are militias that seek to exert control, we will address that head on. And that is clearly what we are doing right now,” a senior U.S. official said Monday.
Al-Sadr does not hold widespread support among Iraq’s Shiites, many of whom see him as too young, radical and inexperienced to lead. But he does have the backing of hundreds of young seminary students and many impoverished Shiites, devoted to him because of his anti-U.S. stance and the memory of his father, a Shiite religious leader gunned down by suspected Saddam agents in 1999.
Al-Sadr has demanded an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and his followers have protested against U.S.-backed local officials in several towns in the south in previous months. But the cleric’s political program has often been unclear.
The violence Sunday was a sign of al-Sadr’s strength.