Al-Sadr aide contests US toll claim

US marines say they have killed an estimated 300 Mahdi Army fighters in Najaf in the past two days, but a Muqtada al-Sadr spokesman says most of those killed were civilians.

    US troops say 300 fighters were slain; Mahdi Army admits to 36

    The spokesman said only 36 fighters had been

    killed in several Iraqi cities after clashes that have fuelled

    fears of a new rebellion among Iraqi Shias.

    The fresh fighting, which continued on Friday, marks a

    major challenge for the interim government of Prime Minister

    Iyad Allawi and appears to have destroyed a two-month-old

    ceasefire between US forces and al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

    "The number of enemy casualties is 300 KIA (killed in

    action)," Lieutenant-Colonel Gary Johnston, operations officer

    for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said at a military base

    near the city, 160km south of Baghdad.

    Johnston told reporters the Mahdi Army fighters were badly

    coordinated and shot at random against the heavily armed marines

    who were backed up by helicopter gunships and fighter planes.

    "There is fighting right now. In some ways it is not as

    intense as yesterday," he said.

    No accurate figures

    US military officials said there were indications that

    foreign fighters had joined the Mahdi Army.

    Criminal gangs were also involved, they said.

    Al-Sadr has a following among
    poor, disaffected Shia youths

    Johnston said there were

    two dead and 12 wounded US soldiers from the two days of fighting.

    Fifteen US occupation troops were also wounded in fighting in the Sadr City district of Baghdad.

    The US-appointed governor of Najaf put the death

    toll among Shia fighters at 400, with 1000 captured. He said he had information

    that 80 Iranians were fighting alongside al-Sadr's militia.

    Shaikh Raed al-Qathimi, a spokesman for al-Sadr, contested the 

    US version of the death toll.

    "I categorically deny these American lies," he said, adding that only 36 Shia fighters have been slain in the clashes.

    Another al-Sadr spokesman, Shaikh Mahmud al-Sudani, told Aljazeera

    both sides had suffered casualties and "there were no accurate figures due to the violent fighting which is still under way".

    He added that

    US forces had violated the truce between the two sides as well as

    the sacredness of Imam Ali's tomb which was subjected to shrapnel damage caused by nearby explosions.

    Tension flare-up

    Meanwhile, British and Italian troops also fought the Mahdi Army

    across Shia-dominated southern Iraq - in Basra, Amara and

    Nasiriya - while fighting raged in Sadr City and Shoula, two

    Shia districts of Baghdad.

    British troops have been fighting
    a Mahdi Army uprising in Basra

    The Health Ministry said fighting in Sadr City alone had

    killed 20 Iraqis and wounded 114 since early on Thursday, while

    in Nasiriya six were dead and 13 wounded.

    Tension has been rising in Najaf since Iraqi security forces

    surrounded al-Sadr's house earlier this week.

    US marines recently replaced the US army in Najaf and

    analysts have suggested the upsurge in violence is linked to the

    marines taking a more aggressive approach with al-Sadr's militia.

    Militiamen shot down a US helicopter as it was trying to

    evacuate a wounded soldier on Thursday. No one was killed, but

    the pilots were wounded.

    Early on Friday F-16s, AC-130 gunships and helicopters

    patrolled the skies over Najaf, covering US troops battling resistance fighters

     in and around Najaf's cemetery

    .

    Fighting also flared near Najaf's shrines, some of the

    holiest for Shia Muslims

    , and some said that gunfire had damaged

    the dome of the Imam Ali shrine.

    The flare-up of tension with members of Iraq's Shia community comes

    after Shia fighters rose up across

    south and central Iraq in April and May.

    Call for renewed truce

    Hundreds of al-Sadr loyalists had
    perished in the April-May clashes

    In the previous uprising, hundreds of Iraqis and dozens of

    US troops were killed.

    Al-Sadr, with an ardent following among

    poor, disaffected youths, appeared keen to stop the latest

    fighting.

    Via his spokesman in Baghdad, he called for a

    resumption of a truce struck in June.

    "We have no objections to entering negotiations to solve

    this crisis," Mahmud al-Sudani said. "As I have said

    in the name of Sayid al-Sadr, we want a resumption of the truce."

    Ayat Allah

    Ali

    al-Sistani, the highest Shia authority in Iraq,  has

    carefully and quietly tried to temper al-Sadr's words and actions.

    But in a worrying move for his followers, al-Sistani, 73,

    flew to London on Friday for treatment for

    a heart problem, sources said.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera + Agencies


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