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Allies fight on all fronts as cleric stirs Iraq cauldron

Najaf, April 6 (Reuters): Followers of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr fought pitched battles with foreign troops in Shia strongholds today and vowed to pursue an uprising that has claimed more than 130 lives in three days.

The bloody clashes with Shias that have raged since Sunday are a new front for US-led forces already fighting an insurgency in Sunni areas and trying to pacify Iraq ahead of a June 30 handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi government.

Since Sunday the US military has suffered 19 combat deaths in Iraq — 11 of them in clashes in Shia areas and six in al-Anbar province where Marines have launched a major mission to root out guerrillas in the Sunni cities of Falluja and Ramadi.

Iraqi foreign minister Hoshiyar Zebari, in London for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said thousands more troops might be needed to maintain order.

US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said if commanders on the ground requested additional forces, they would be sent. “They will decide what they need and will get what they want,” he said. The latest reported US death was a soldier killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in a Shia area of Baghdad today. A Ukrainian soldier and a Bulgarian civilian truck driver were killed in Shia regions of southern Iraq.

The Ukrainian soldier was killed in a blast near the town of Kut that also wounded five others, Ukraine’s defence ministry said. Bulgaria’s foreign ministry said the driver was killed when a convoy of six trucks was attacked south of Nassiriya.

In Nassiriya, gun battles erupted before dawn between Italian troops and pro-Sadr militiamen who had taken control of key bridges in the town. Paola della Casa, a spokeswoman for the occupation authority in the area, said 15 Iraqis had been killed, some of them civilians but most of them militiamen.

The Italian military said 12 soldiers had been wounded.

Fighting between militiamen and security forces in Amara, in the British army area of responsibility, killed 15 Iraqis in the last 48 hours, Britain’s ministry of defence said. The Bulgarian military base in Karbala came under heavy grenade and machinegun fire, Bulgaria’s defence ministry said, and Spanish and Polish troops also clashed with militiamen.

Iraq’s health ministry said 66 Iraqis had been killed and 317 wounded in clashes in Shia areas of Baghdad since Sunday.

President George W. Bush vowed the campaign by Sadr’s supporters would not derail Washington’s plans for Iraq, but the youthful cleric said he would fight on regardless.

“This insurrection shows that the Iraqi people are not satisfied with the occupation and they will not accept oppression,” he said in a statement issued by his office in the Shia holy city of Najaf. Qays al-Khazali, one of Sadr’s aides, compared the uprising to a 1991 Shia rebellion eventually crushed by Saddam Hussein and said it would go on until the cleric’s demands were met.

“The uprising will continue and we will not negotiate unless they fulfil our demands, which are a withdrawal from populated areas and the release of prisoners,” he told a news conference.

Qaida tape

Senior al Qaida operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, sentenced to death in absentia in Jordan today, urged Islamist militants to step up attacks on US forces and what he called their Shia collaborators. “God has privileged you and humiliated at your hands the mightiest power in history,” he said, according to an audio tape aired on an Islamist Web site.

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