| An Iraqi shouts for help as he carries an injured child after the blast in Baghdad. (AFP)
Falluja, April 26 (Reuters): US forces in Iraq threw down a gauntlet to fighters from both main Muslim communities today, threatening imminent assaults on two key towns if guerrillas do not accede to their demands.
US forces encircle both Najaf, the holiest city for Iraq’s Shia majority, and Falluja, where Sunni insurgents fought a bloody new round in a three-week battle with US marines. Eight guerrillas and a soldier died in clashes that damaged a mosque. US and militia forces also fought near Najaf today.
With the clock ticking down to a formal handover of power to Iraqis on June 30, the US-led occupation authority is racing to extinguish two serious challenges to its military control — while avoiding inflaming Iraqi public opinion.
US officials in Washington said President George W. Bush had asked commanders at Falluja to keep up negotiations. But they may start probing patrols into the city of 300,000 as early as tomorrow, risking serious confrontations.
Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Baghdad who called the situation in Najaf “explosive”, issued an ultimatum to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to withdraw his Mehdi Army militia and its weapons from mosques and schools immediately.
Late today, US forces clashed with Sadr’s militiamen outside Najaf, south of Baghdad, leaving several Iraqi vehicles burning, witnesses said. There were no reports on casualties.
“The coalition certainly will not tolerate this situation. The restoration of these holy places to calm places of worship must begin immediately,” Bremer said in his written statement.
His spokesman, Dan Senor, said a Geneva Convention bar on attacks on such sites would not apply if they were used for military purposes. He declined to say precisely how US forces would respond if Sadr, who is wanted for murder, did not comply with the demand to clear weapons and militiamen from mosques.
| A marine prays during an open-air Sunday mass in Falluja. (Reuters)
The cleric’s popularity is not universal, but any military action in Najaf would inflame Shias in Iraq, where the long-oppressed majority largely welcomed the toppling of Saddam Hussein, as well as elsewhere in West Asia, notably in Shia-ruled Iran.
In Sunni Falluja, long loyal to Saddam, US forces have also been largely holding back since launching a crackdown three weeks after the murder and mutilation of four American security guards. Local doctors say 600 people were killed. That has angered many fellow Arabs.
But US patrols, alongside Iraqi forces, would begin in Falluja “as early as tomorrow”, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, a military spokesman for the authority, said.
Guerrillas, who may number up to 2,000 and include 200 or more foreign militants, have until tomorrow to hand in heavy weapons. After two weeks of a much abused ceasefire and today’s fighting, which involved guerrilla rocket attacks and US air strikes, there seems only a slim chance of that.
“We certainly hope that there is an epiphany on the part of the belligerents in Falluja tonight to recognise there are two tracks,” Kimmitt said. “There is... a peaceful settlement or there is a settlement achieved by force of arms. Their choice.”
He said, however, the moment for action would be up to the US commander on the ground and training and other preparation among the Americans and Iraqis charged with retaking the dangerous streets of Falluja might take some time yet.
US officials say some of those fighting in the city seem to have links with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida group. Among such militants said by Washington to be operating in Iraq, is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He claimed responsibility for Saturday’s suicide boat attack on a key offshore oil export terminal near Basra.
In Baghdad, two US soldiers were killed when a chemical store blew up during a raid that appeared may have involved specialists engaged in the hunt for Saddam’s elusive chemical and biological weapons.
The death toll for this month alone among US troops stands at well over 100, accounting for more than one in five of all combat deaths since the invasion last March — a fact putting pressure on Bush as he fights for re-election in November.
Washington is also struggling to keep its coalition together as the violence gets bloodier. Spain is already pulling out its troops, leaving a hole around Najaf that Kimmitt said US troops may have to fill themselves. Foreign civilians have also been targeted. One group released a videotape showing three Italians and saying they would be killed in five days if Italians did not protest at Rome's military venture in Iraq.