U.S. airstrike hits Fallujah for fourth straight day, protests in Najaf against radical cleric

Friday, September 10th 2004, 6:33 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ A U.S. jet fired missiles Friday in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, the fourth day of attacks targeting the city where U.S. and Iraqi troops have no control, officials said.

One man was killed in the attack, Dr. Ahmed Thaer of the Fallujah General Hospital said. The attack followed airstrikes Thursday that reportedly killed nine people in Fallujah and dozens more in the northern town of Tal Afar, also one of the cities that has fallen under insurgent control and become a ``no-go'' zone for U.S. troops.

Late Thursday, the regional government's television station reported U.S. and Iraqi government forces had agreed to allow medical teams to enter Tal Afar to care for people wounded from the airstrikes there, but that military operations would continue ``until the city is liberated from outsiders and saboteurs so that peace can be restored.''

Meanwhile Friday, about 1,000 protesters marched through Najaf's old quarter Friday to demand that Muqtada al-Sadr and his aides leave this holy city that has been ravaged by fighting between the radical cleric's followers and U.S. and Iraqi troops.

Chanting, ``Muqtada, the trash, is a leader of looters,'' the demonstrators walked past buildings hit by three weeks of fighting and insisted that al-Sadr's office be shut down. Iraqi soldiers kept the protesters from marching to al-Sadr's office.

They also demanded that the Iraqi government investigate the practices of a religious court that al-Sadr's office operated and punish those in charge of it.

The court, which worked separately from Iraq's legal system, ordered arrests and handed out punishments. It stopped functioning after al-Sadr's followers relinquished the control they had in areas here as part of a peace agreement to end the violence.

Sheik Ali Smeisim, an aide to al-Sadr, said the demonstration was an attempt to create tension.

``We were expecting such things,'' he said. ``Whenever there is a chance for peaceful solutions, some people hold protests to escalate the situation.''

The latest bout of violence in Najaf lasted for three weeks and ended only when Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, brokered a peace deal here last month. The clashes left many streets, markets and buildings in Najaf in ruins and damaged the city's economy.

The airstrike Friday came during a week in which nearly 20 American troops were killed _ pushing the U.S. military death toll in the Iraq campaign above 1,000 _ and al-Qaida claimed U.S. forces neared defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

``The Americans in both countries are between two fires, if they continue they bleed to death and if they withdraw they lose everything,'' Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin-Laden's top deputy, said on a videotape broadcast Thursday by Al-Jazeera.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities lost control of Fallujah after U.S. Marines ended a three-week siege last April and turned the city over to a U.S.-sanctioned force, the Fallujah Brigade, which has now all but disappeared.

Restoring government control to major cities is essential if the country is to hold national elections by the end of January. The weakening of central government authority has led to a wave of kidnappings of Iraqis and foreigners, including two French journalists seized last month and two Italian female aid workers taken captive Tuesday in Baghdad.

Before dawn Friday, Fallujah residents reported hearing strong explosions in the north of the city, but the U.S. command in Baghdad said it had no reports of a new American bombardment.

Using a different strategy, American and Iraqi forces entered the central city of Samarra for the first time in months under an agreement with local leaders to restore central government control peacefully.

A member of the Samarra council, Raad Hatem, said the deal called for the appointment of a new mayor and police chief and for reconstruction to begin next week. In return, Samarra residents agreed to remove guns from the streets. The Americans pledged to stop raiding private homes.

The troops that entered the city will maintain joint traffic control points in the city and will also open the Samarra Bridge.

Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, said this week he had offered a deal to insurgents under which they would be free to leave Samarra or to remain inside as long as they stopped fighting. U.S. said they believed a hundred or so extremists, including some 40 foreigners _ Saudis, Yemenis, Sudanese and Jordanians _ had been the biggest obstacle to Batiste's initiative.

Contacts are under way between Fallujah representatives and the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to restore some degree of control over the city. The Fallujah residents want the U.S. attacks to stop and the Americans to pay compensation to people killed in attacks.

Allawi wants city officials to hand over al-Qaida-linked terrorists that he and the Americans say are in Fallujah.

Relative calm returned to much of the Shiite Muslim heartland after an agreement negotiated last month by Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The agreement brought an end to weeks of fighting between U.S. troops and Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Iraqi officials want to prevent al-Sadr from rebuilding his forces in Najaf. Toward that end, dozens of Iraqi soldiers and police raided al-Sadr's Najaf office to search for weapons. Al-Sadr was not there at the time, and no weapons were found, although Iraqi officials said ammunition and mortars were confiscated from nearby houses.