| Iraqis celebrate as US vehicles burn in Abu Gharib on the outskirts of Falluja. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 8 (Reuters): US-led troops battled Sunni and Shia rebels today as Iraq descended into bloody chaos not seen since Saddam Hussein’s fall a year ago.
The top US general in Iraq acknowledged the southern towns of Najaf and Kut were in the hands of a radical Shia militia but vowed they would be retaken and the militia destroyed. Heavy fighting raged in the Sunni town of Falluja, west of Baghdad, in the Shia shrine city of Karbala and in Abu Ghraib on the western outskirts of the capital, witnesses said.
“We have got Falluja under siege,” Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez told a news conference. He denied that US forces were depriving its people of humanitarian supplies.
Up to 300 Iraqis have been killed and at least 400 hurt in the Sunni town in the four days since US Marines began a crackdown on guerrillas, hospital director Rafi Hayad said.
The Marines launched “Operation Iron Resolve” after last week’s killing and mutilation of four US private security guards showed the depth of anti-American feeling in Falluja.
South of Baghdad, Polish and Bulgarian troops battled followers of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the shrine city of Karbala, where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have converged for Arbain, a major Shia religious occasion.
Sanchez said Sadr’s Mehdi army militia controlled the centres of Najaf and Kut, along with police stations and public buildings, while coalition troops held bases outside the towns.
Asked if US troops would be sent to fight the Mehdi army, he said: “We will do whatever is necessary to defeat Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces wherever they are on the battlefield.”
This week’s intense two-front fighting has killed 35 American and allied soldiers and hundreds of Iraqis. It has elicited US assertions of resolve, but prompted signs of nervousness among some other countries with troops in Iraq.
This week’s sudden Shia uprising, coinciding with the US crackdown on Sunni towns like Falluja and Ramadi, has drawn some expressions of Sunni-Shia solidarity, but it is not clear whether their guerrilla groups are coordinating.
Thousands of Sunni and Shia protesters gathered outside Baghdad’s Um al-Qura mosque, chanting slogans in support of people in Falluja, Karbala and other conflict zones. Similar rallies took place in Mosul and Baquba, north of the capital.
“We will carry our swords and strike the Americans on their heads,” a Sunni cleric yelled. Trucks with food and other goods then left Baghdad for Falluja, which is ringed by US forces. Heavy fighting broke out in the Abu Ghraib area on Baghdad’s western outskirts. Witnesses said guerrillas attacked a US military convoy on the highway and were also battling Iraqi police in the nearby township of Abu Ghraib.
The US said it might keep combat-hardened troops in Iraq longer than planned to help tackle insurgents trying to expel American-led occupiers.
Polish and Bulgarian soldiers traded fire with Sadr’s militia in Karbala throughout the night, a Polish spokesman said. A health official said four Iraqis had been killed and 16 wounded. More clashes erupted during the day.
In Falluja townspeople were told by mosque loudspeakers to take their dead to a sports stadium for burial. Fighting has made it impossible to reach cemeteries on the town's outskirts.
Nada Doumani, spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the ICRC had sent anaesthetics to Falluja with a Red Crescent convoy today. The ICRC delivered 1.5 tonnes of medical supplies the previous day, but its trucks could not get inside the town or reach the main hospital.
Denying that Iraq was spinning out of control, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said forces could be strengthened by extending the one-year tour of duty of soldiers due to leave.
The latest violence has prompted President George W. Bush's critics to suggest US forces face a Vietnam-style quagmire.