U.S. troops backed by tanks and armored vehicles fought fierce battles on Wednesday against supporters of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala, local officials and witnesses said.
They said the fighting erupted on Tuesday evening and was still going on as dawn broke, with members of Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia holed up in a mosque and surrounded by U.S. forces.
“Five Iraqis were killed in the clashes, two of them fighters from the Mehdi Army,” said Faleh al-Hasnawi, Kerbala’s director of health. “Twelve people were wounded, and a hotel and several houses near the Mehdi Army compound were destroyed.”
Witnesses said U.S. forces using loudspeakers were ordering the militiamen to surrender their weapons and to leave the mosque compound.
Iraqi police set up checkpoints around the city, 70 miles southwest of Baghdad.
Sadr’s militia launched an uprising against occupying troops last month. U.S. officials vowed to kill or capture him, but they have recently backed away from that stance, preferring to stress they would support a solution worked out by Iraqis.
Sadr is in Najaf — another Shi’ite holy city — and has sworn to resist efforts to detain him.
Senior aides to Sadr in Najaf said on Tuesday they had agreed with other Shi’ite Muslim factions that the cleric could pull his Mehdi Army militia out of the city if U.S. forces also withdrew.
“Agreement has been reached on all points of contention. This agreement represents all shades of the Shi’ite political spectrum,” Qais al-Khazali, Sadr’s chief aide in Najaf, told Reuters after a meeting with rival Shi’ite leaders.
“This is the beginning of a solution to the crisis that endangers everyone,” said Abu Hassan Amari, head of the Badr Brigades militia which is loyal to the rival Shi’ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
There was no initial response from the U.S. military which occupies a small base and other buildings in Najaf but has kept away from the holy shrines where Sadr and his fighters have taken refuge as the month-long insurgency has stalled.
But earlier, the U.S. commander in the area, Major General Martin Dempsey, said his forces were prepared to hand over security in Najaf to a locally raised security force that could include members of Sadr’s Mehdi Army.
Rival Shi’ite leaders have appeared particularly anxious to end the standoff in Najaf as local irritation with its economic impact has grown and fears have mounted that fighting could break out among various armed Shi’ite groups across the south.