Mil News U.S. Kills 20 Insurgents in and around Mosque in Kufa



U.S. Troops Storm Mosque in Attack on Iraq Militia

By Suleiman al-Khalidi

KUFA, Iraq (Reuters) - U.S. tanks, ground troops and aircraft launched a major offensive against Iraqi Shi'ite militia Sunday, killing about 20 in one raid on a mosque and pounding other positions around the holy city of Najaf.

The fiercest fighting in the area for weeks killed at least 34 people and wounded dozens, including civilians, overnight and seemed a definitive answer to a tentative truce offer made by an aide to the cleric leading the Mehdi Army, Moqtada al-Sadr.

Pools of blood lay inside the green-domed Sahla mosque, one of three main shrines in Kufa just outside Najaf, and spent cartridges littered the courtyard. A tank had smashed down the door of the building, where U.S. troops said they found weapons.

U.S. commanders say they are trying to avoid inflaming religious passions but will attack mosques used in combat.

Sadr, a young firebrand preacher from a respected clerical dynasty, has irritated much of the Shi'ite establishment with his use of holy places in his revolt. Some Shi'ite leaders have also demanded the Americans show restraint in the shrine cities.

Washington's main military ally in Iraq (news - web sites), Britain, has voiced disquiet about "heavy-handed" U.S. tactics, according to a Foreign Office memo leaked to the Sunday Times newspaper.

London officials were also quoted complaining the scandal over U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners had "sapped the moral authority" of the occupying forces, who are due to hand back sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 30.

In a new twist to the affair, a military lawyer defending one of the sergeants accused of beating and sexually humiliating detainees at Abu Ghraib was quoted as alleging that the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, may have been present at the Baghdad prison at the time.


"An estimated 20 Mehdi militia were killed after firing on coalition forces during a raid on the Sahla mosque in Kufa," a U.S. military spokesman said. There no reported U.S. casualties.

Staff at the main hospital in Najaf said they had taken in 14 dead and 37 wounded, mostly civilians.

About 100 Kufa residents gathered to inspect the damage.

"I feel humiliated," said Ali Wasi. "Our sanctity has been violated. These houses of prayer are the most valuable things we own, for Shi'ites. I will resist them until the last drop of blood in my body," he said, speaking in the mosque's courtyard.

Sadr, whose forces rose up against the U.S. occupation last month, has taken refuge among Najaf's holy sites but also has a stronghold at Kufa, where he preaches regular Friday sermons.

The offensive came hours after Sadr's chief aide in Najaf floated a vague truce offer for the two main holy cities, Najaf and Kerbala. U.S. civilian spokesman Dan Senor said Sadr must first give himself up on a murder charge and disband his force.

Kerbala, where there was heavy fighting Friday, was calm and there was no sign of guerrillas on the streets.

Ahmad al-Husseini, a Sadr spokesman and Mehdi Army commander in Kerbala, told Reuters the militia had withdrawn from the center of the city but were ready to fight if attacked. British Prime Minister Tony Blair (news - web sites) has insisted in public that he has no differences on strategy with Washington.

The Sunday Times quoted a British Foreign Office memo as saying: "Heavy-handed U.S. military tactics in Falluja and Najaf some weeks ago have fueled both Sunni and Shi'ite opposition to the coalition and lost us much public support inside Iraq."


The British memo also complained the abuse scandal had "sapped the moral authority" of the occupiers, who hope Iraq will remain pro-American after elections due by January.

President Bush (news - web sites), campaigning for re-election in November, has blamed the scandal on the "wrongdoing of a few" -- namely seven military police reservists charged with abusing prisoners. One was convicted at a court-martial last week.

Some of the others, however, are expected to argue at trial that they were following orders, notably from intelligence officers anxious to extract information from prisoners.

The Washington Post Sunday cited legal proceedings that showed one possible defense witness may testify that Sanchez, was present at Abu Ghraib during some interrogations.

It said Captain Rob Shuck, defending Staff Sgt. Ivan "Chip" Frederick, told a hearing on April 2 that Frederick's company commander, Captain Donald Reese, was ready to testify:

"Present during some of these happenings, it has come to my knowledge that Lieutenant General Sanchez was even present at the prison during some of these interrogations and/or allegations of the prisoner abuse," Shuck was quoted as saying.

Reuters, the international news agency, has asked Sanchez to reopen an investigation into the case of three Iraqi employees detained for three days and mistreated by soldiers in January.

Sanchez said last week he was still satisfied with a report conducted by the army which exonerated the soldiers even though it failed to interview the Reuters employees. The report found the soldiers had subjected the men to "sleep management."

But Sanchez told the Senate Armed Forces Committee last week he had never authorized use of the technique in Iraq. (Additional reporting by Sami Jumaili in Kerbala)


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