Heavy Fighting in Karbala, Amara, Nasiriyah, Samawah
5 Americans Dead; British Kill 20 Near Amara
The Shiite uprising of Muqtada al-Sadr continued Saturday, as it clashed with Coalition forces throughout the south of the country.
Guerrillas killed 3 US soldiers Friday night or Saturday, while two others died of non-combat-related causes.
al-Hayat and ash-Sharq al-Awsat: British troops killed 20 Iraqis on Saturday in battles with the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr near Amara. British sources maintained that their forces had been ambushed by the Sadrists, including by roadside bombs.
Fierce battles also raged in Nasiriyah Friday night into Saturday between Italian troops and Mahdi Army forces after the latter bombarded the Coalition HQ in that city, in which 20 state employees and journalists had taken shelter.
BBC monitoring reports,
” Three hours of fighting overnight in Al-Nasiriyah: Italian soldiers clashed with members of the Al-Mahdi Army militia overnight in the centre of Al-Nasiriyah, AFP reported on 15th quoting an Italian military spokesman. The spokesman said the fighting lasted for three hours, but that no coalition forces were wounded . . . Italian troops returned fire against militiamen armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. However, a house was destroyed and several others were damaged along with some shops. Electricity officials said power had been cut in five districts of the city. (AFP 0719 gmt 15 May 04) “
In Karbala, clashes between Iraqi Civil Defense forces and Sadrists resulted in the deaths of 3 Iraqi civilians and the wounding of 7 others. The battle broke out Saturday morning. Ali al-`Ardawi, the director of Karbala’s Emergency Room, was the one who provided the casualty figures. Eyewitnesses said that American forces in the city destroyed the office of al-Sadr, where his fighters had been surrounded. Helicopter gunships fired missiles at Mahdi Army positions, and American snipers spread out on rooftops near the shrine of Imam Husain and his half-brother Abbas. Karbala police denied reports that the Sadrists had kicked them out of their police station or had captured weapons stores from them. US soldiers used megaphones to urge Karbala residents to evacuate from the downtown area, suggesting that they were on the verge of launching a new offensive. Mahdi Army leader Shaikh Hamza al-Ta’i held a news conference in which he released a member of the Karbala police force, who had been captured by Mahdi Army forces a couple of days ago. Al-Ta’i announced, “This is the last policeman we release. If we capture any police in future, we will execute him as a collaborator with the occupation.”
An aide of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Karbala, Shaikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbala’i, on being asked about Sistani’s position, said that the grand ayatollah had called on the people of Karbala “to mediate between the two sides to resolve the crisis in peaceful ways.”
US military fire killed 3 Mahdi Army militiamen and (by accident) an Iraqi policeman in the east Baghdad slum, Sadr City.
BBC World Monitoring Reports from the Japanese Kyodo News site,
” Gunfire broke out late on 14th and early 15th in Samawah around an area where armed supporters of Shi’i cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr had gathered, and a separate explosion in the city killed at least one Iraqi security force member, Japanese news agency Kyodo reported quoting police and eye-witnesses. A spokesman for the British forces in Basra said some of the gunfire was aimed at Dutch troops in Samawah, where Japanese troops are also deployed. The explosion occurred around 12.55 am. on 15th ; an ambulance was later seen heading for the southeastern section of the city. Witnesses said the shooting lasted about 10 minutes around 11.30 pm. in the heart of Samawah near the building where 20 to 30 supporters of Al-Sadr gathered earlier in the afternoon. Another round of small-arms fire was heard near a police facility in the city around 2.45 am. Sporadic shooting including near a local police facility, followed until early on 15th . . . Many of the supporters were masked and armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles, witnesses said. This was one of the most violent outbreak in Samawah since US President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq in May last year. (Kyodo 0223 gmt 15 May 04)
Ali al-Addad, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq,” told al-Hayat that his organization’s Badr Corps militia would fight alongside the Mahdi Army in a holy war if it were ordered to do so by the grand ayatollahs in Najaf. (I.e. he is saying that they would turn on the Americans in a New York minute if Sistani ordered them to). The office of Abu Bakr al-Sa`idi, supervisor of the Badr Corps, however, denied any intention to intervene on one side or the other.
A prominent official of the Badr Corps in Sadr City told al-Hayat that the leadership of the Corps had ordered all its troops in the city to avoid all sites associated with the Mahdi Army. He admitted that rumors were circulating that Badr Corps fighters were betraying to the Americans the hiding-places of Mahdi Army officials.
Udayy al-Asadi, a well-known Sadrist in Baghdad, said that the faction within SCIRI headed by Sadr al-Din al-Qubanji supported the American operation to curb or destroy the Army of the Mahdi “because some of them will greatly benefit if the Sadrist movement is extinguished.”
Meanwhile, the Board of Muslim Clerics, a fundamentalist body with substantial authority for Sunni Arabs, announced “its support for Sadr, and called on the Shiites to unify their ranks.” It strongly denounced American troops for conducting military operations in Najaf and Karbala. (Ali, whose tomb is in Najaf, is both the first Imam of the Shiites and the fourth Caliph of the Sunnis. It is sort of like the situation of St. Peter in Christianity, where he is given primacy by Catholicism but is secondary to Paul among many Protestants. Anyway, Sunnis are just as worried about the sanctity of Ali’s tomb as Shiites are).
The Board’s statement encouraged “our brethren in Najaf and Karbala to show solidarity among themselves, and to stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of those who desire evil for them.” The Sunni clerics called on the Shiites to “beware of falling into the snare and to refuse to allow any internal faction fighting to flare up.”
(When hardline Sunni clerics are dismayed that the Shiites are divided, you know things are bad. This would be like the Vatican upbraiding Ian Paisley for not working closely enough with other Protestants.)
Harith al-Dhari, the head of the Board of Muslim Clerics, said that he stood by any “free Iraqi who is confronting the forces of Occupation.” He added, “National values that reject Occupation join us together with the leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, and we deeply appreciate these values, with which he is adorned.” He said that the Fallujah agreement, which ended the American siege of that Sunni Arab city, would not lead Sunnis to leave Muqtada al-Sadr to confront the Americans by himself. He said that the simultaneous nature of the attacks on Fallujah and on Muqtada al-Sadr had inspired a conviction that there was some sort of connection and coordination between the resistance in Fallujah and that in Najaf, but he denied any such formal cooperation.
Senior Iranian cleric Hosain Nuri Hamedani ‘ referred to the US forces operations as savage attacks on Muslim holy sites in the two Iraqi cities, and called them “painful and intolerable.” ‘
Reuters reports that an umbrella group of Kuwaiti Shiites, the “Congregation of Muslim Shiite Ulama in Kuwait,” which includes an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a statement condemning both the US and the Sadrists for fighting in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
“We strongly demand that these forces put out the fire of strife raging in holy Najaf and Karbala by pulling out from the two holy shrines. The Shi’ites of the world did not expect this hasty and wrong behavior from the coalition forces in Iraq by entering the holy sites.”
About 15% of the Kuwaiti population is said to be Shiite, and the community there is intellectually and institutionally important for other Gulf countries and for Basra in particular in Iraq. It has a lot of wealthy merchants and some important Islamic institutes.