| A girl stares at a US soldier as she waits with her family for permission to enter Falluja. (AFP)
Najaf, April 27 (Reuters): US forces killed dozens of Iraqi fighters near Najaf hours after Washington issued an ultimatum to a radical Shia cleric to clear his militia from mosques in the holy city, a US spokesman said today.
Airborne gunships wiped out about 57 guerrillas in a single assault against a lone anti-aircraft gun spotted during clashes on the ground, officials said.
It was the bloodiest encounter since firebrand preacher Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia launched a brief revolt against the US-led occupation three weeks ago. It may mark a new phase in American efforts to dislodge him from Najaf, where he has taken refuge among Islam’s holiest Shia shrines.
In all, US troops killed about 64 fighters in clashes near Kufa, 10 km from Najaf, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told a news conference in Baghdad.
Locals said aircraft had destroyed a militia checkpoint. Kimmitt said guerrillas fired rocket-propelled grenades at a tank. Staff at two hospitals counted at least 23 dead and 34 wounded. Some of the casualties did not appear to be guerrillas.
At the funerals of five people killed, mourners chanted: “Long live Sadr!” and slogans against the US and its allies on Iraq’s interim governing council.
Adding to the US burden, Spanish troops left Iraq in a withdrawal ordered by the new government in Madrid, where opposition to the occupation runs high. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero said only support personnel were left in Iraq and the last of them would be out by May 27.
US troops, who make up the vast bulk of the 150,000-strong force in Iraq, have had to replace the Spaniards in Najaf.
President Georgi Parvanov demanded Bulgaria’s 450 troops be moved to safety away from the nearby holy city of Karbala after his convoy was fired on when he visited them on Sunday. In a second flashpoint, the Sunni town of Falluja, local police took to the streets in force today as a deadline expired for guerrillas to hand in heavy weapons. After bloody skirmishing yesterday, clashes were relatively light.
Making clear Washington was in no hurry to launch an all-out assault on a town where hundreds have been killed during a three-week siege, Kimmitt said he was not sure any weapons were turned over today but added negotiations were “going well” and there were still plans for US troops to enter the town.
US secretary of state Colin Powell said yesterday the still-undefined government due to take power in Iraq on July 1 would have to give up some of its sovereignty to allow a free hand to US-led armed forces.
Powell said it would take time for the US-led forces to establish security and that the new government would need their help.