| Huda Rubaie and her daughter Nada at their relatives’ home in Baghdad after they fled from Falluja to escape the clashes between the US military and Iraqi guerrillas. (Reuters)
Tehran/Falluja, April 12: US commanders in Iraq want rebellious Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr dead or alive but they said today his militia’s control of the holy city of Najaf was not a widespread uprising by the Shia majority.
“The mission of the US forces is to kill or capture Moqtada al-Sadr,” Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of ground forces in Iraq, said in a video conference from Baghdad with reporters at the Pentagon.
General John Abizaid, head of Central Command that covers Iraq, on the same video conference said Sadr was being isolated by fellow Shias.
“Moqtada al-Sadr is isolating himself,” Abizaid said. “This was not by any stretch of the imagination a Shia uprising.”
US forces have been trying to douse a rebellion in several towns and cities by followers of Sadr, a firebrand Shia cleric whose grassroots supporters are also seen as aiding rival insurgents from the Sunni minority against the US occupation.
Sanchez acknowledged Sadr’s followers have “some presence” in Karbala and still control Najaf, where thousands of Shia pilgrims are marking the death of one of their holiest figures. He said US forces were on the outskirts of the city, ready to attack, but they had refrained so far out of respect for Shia beliefs.
In Falluja, a shaky truce held between US Marines and Sunni rebels held in Falluja today after further talks to calm Iraq’s bloodiest fighting since the war.
Despite overnight clashes in Falluja, Iraqi mediators said they had secured an extension to a truce that gave the battered town some respite at the weekend. Mohammed Qubaisi, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said more talks were expected tomorrow.
A spokesman for the US military, which is taking no direct part in the talks, said he hoped the political track would succeed in restoring “legitimate Iraqi control” in Falluja.
Otherwise, Kimmitt said, the Marines were ready to “complete the destruction of enemy forces” there.
Each side blames the other for breaking the informal truce. The Marines said they had come under fire all day yesterday and had killed a “significant number” of rebels. A Marine helicopter had hit two guerrilla positions with rockets and missiles.
Denying that Iraq was in chaos, Kimmitt said US-led forces had lost about 70 dead and killed about 10 times that number of rebels this month.
The coalition death toll compares to 89 troops killed in action in the three-week war that toppled Saddam Hussein. At least 474 US troops have died in combat since the war began.
Kimmitt had no word on civilian deaths in what has been Iraq’s most violent period since the fall of Baghdad a year ago.
Rafa Hayad al-Issawi, director of Falluja’s main hospital, said he believed more than 600 Iraqis had been killed there.
The Marines attacked rebels in Falluja last week in response to the murder and mutilation of four American private security guards ambushed in the town on March 31. Kimmitt said US-led forces had deployed “a significant amount of combat power” to secure roads west and south of Baghdad. But guerrillas struck again, setting a US military truck ablaze on the road to Baghdad airport, witnesses said.
The US military said today seven civilian US contractors and two American soldiers were missing. Several other foreign contractors are also held by insurgents or are missing.
Several foreigners have been killed, including a Romanian private security guard who died in an ambush near Baghdad on Sunday. The Romanian foreign ministry said one of his colleagues was wounded in the attack. His life was not in danger.
A US force including tanks and armoured vehicles surrounded Mustansiriya University in Baghdad today and warned armed students inside the campus to surrender, witnesses said.
“Drop your weapons and leave the campus,” Iraqis working with the US force shouted through loudspeakers.
It was not clear what triggered the standoff. The armed students are believed to be followers of Shia parties, whose influence on the student body has been rising.