NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – Hundreds of Iraqis marched in Najaf Tuesday calling on militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to withdraw his fighters from the Shi’ite holy city.
It was the biggest and most public display yet of mounting local exasperation with an uprising launched last month against the U.S. occupation and follows a U.S. crackdown on Sadr’s Mehdi Army, which says it plans to open up new fronts in its war.
Overnight, U.S. forces said they killed 13 militiamen and captured 14 at Kufa, near Najaf. Spurred on by rival Shi’ite leaders, U.S.-led forces have reasserted their presence in many southern towns and established a cordon around Najaf, where Sadr remains — for now — out of their reach on sacred ground.
Scattered violence around Iraq, some of it against foreigners, underlined continuing lawlessness as the United States prepares to return sovereignty to Iraqis in seven weeks.
A civilian supply convoy was attacked on the main highway to Baghdad from Jordan, the U.S. military said. Several of its 21 vehicles were destroyed and several people are missing. Details of the incident, near Rutba, remained sketchy, however.
Russia urged its citizens to leave the country a day after an engineer was killed and two others taken captive near the power station where they were working. The body of an unidentified American civilian was found in Baghdad Monday.
A bomb exploded in a crowded market in a Kurdish neighborhood of the northern oil city of Kirkuk, killing three people and wounding around 22, Iraqi police said. Two foreign engineers were shot dead in the city a day earlier.
OIL EXPORTS HIT
Iraq has the world’s second biggest reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia and getting it back on stream after a decade of sanctions and war under Saddam Hussein is key to rebuilding the economy. Sabotage and other violence continue to hinder postwar reconstruction.
Officials revealed that oil exports had been cut by a third since a bomb blew up a pipeline in southern Iraq. They hoped to resume full flow within a day. But experts were skeptical.
The crowd in Najaf marched to the central shrine area of the city before dispersing peacefully. Some Sadr gunmen fired in the air toward the end of the march, but most demonstrators had dispersed by then, witnesses said.
The protest, organized by Sadr’s political foes, followed a smaller one Monday and reflected increasing pressure from Shi’ite elders on Sadr to move his men out.
A bigger demonstration is planned for Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, said an official of a rival Shi’ite organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Sadr, wanted in connection with the murder of a rival cleric last year, is opposed by much of the mainstream Shi’ite religious establishment. Aged about 30 and drawing authority from his late father, who was murdered under Saddam, he has a wide following, especially among the young urban poor.
Thousands of fighters across the long-oppressed Shi’ite south seized town centers, police stations and other key sites last month. But U.S. and allied troops have been driving them out, claiming to have killed dozens of guerrillas.
U.S. commanders say they do not want to push into the shrine area, which they know would cause outrage among Shi’ites, but General John Abizaid, who is in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said Monday his patience was wearing thin.
Washington would dearly like to see local Iraqi pressure put an end to Sadr’s uprising without a battle in Najaf.
A senior aide to Sadr in the city told Reuters Monday the Mehdi Army planned to widen its offensive, however.
In Kirkuk, police said the bomb attack occurred at around 9:30 a.m. when the market was packed with shoppers. Kirkuk, a city claimed by three ethnic groups — Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs — has suffered serious unrest of late.
Kirkuk police chief Shirko Shakir said five of those hurt in the blast were seriously wounded.
In the southern town of Samawa, a Dutch soldier was killed and one wounded by a grenade, the Dutch Defense Ministry said, confirming the first death among 1,200 Dutch troops in Iraq.
At least 63 troops from allied nations have been killed in action, 20 of them from Britain. At least 562 Americans have been killed since the invasion 14 months ago.