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U.S. Military Vows To 'Destroy' Al-Sadr As It Grapples With Unrest --> Prague, 7 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-led coalition today vowed to destroy a militia led by radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as coalition forces throughout Iraq clashed with Sunni and Shi'a insurgents.

Today's battles come after up to 12 U.S. Marines and dozens of Iraqis were killed in Sunni flashpoints of violence coinciding with a rebellion by armed Shi'a fighters.

U.S. Marines today are pursuing a large-scale operation in the restive cities of Ramadi and Al-Fallujah, in the so-called Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad. The area has been a bastion of anti-U.S. insurgency since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

There are reports of heavy fighting today in Al-Fallujah, 35 kilometers west of Baghdad, where U.S. forces are involved in a major crackdown after the killings last week of four private U.S. security guards in the city.

News agencies -- citing local doctors -- report that at least 36 people were killed in Al-Fallujah over the past 24 hours. Twenty-five civilians were killed in a house said to have been destroyed in a U.S. helicopter strike.

A U.S. military spokeswoman in Baghdad said she has no word on the incident.

In Ramadi, some 35 kilometers west of Al-Fallujah, efforts to quell the violence are reported to be continuing after 12 Marines were killed and more than 20 wounded in heavy fighting with insurgents yesterday. Up to 30 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq since 4 April.

Elsewhere in Iraq, coalition troops over the past day fought gun battles with members of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia in the southern cities of Al-Nassiriyah, Amara, and Kut.

Coalition deputy operations chief U.S. Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt today vowed to destroy the Al-Mahdi Army.

Kimmitt, speaking at a news briefing in Baghdad, said: "In the central and southern regions of Iraq, the coalition and Iraqi security forces are conducting operations to destroy the Mahdi Army. In Baghdad, the 1st Armored Division remains on the offensive, conducting intelligence-based raids to destroy elements of the Mahdi Army attempting to intimidate the population, secure government buildings and Iraqi police stations."

Kimmit also said U.S. forces are hunting members of the Al-Mahdi Army in the mainly Shi'a neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad, where bloody clashes on Sunday killed eight U.S. soldiers and scores of Iraqis.

Kimmitt said al-Sadr -- as well as the Sunni guerrillas who have opposed U.S. forces for months -- are waging violence to disrupt the 30 June handover of power from the Americans to an Iraqi government.

Kimmitt called on al-Sadr to surrender. "If Mr. al-Sadr wants to reduce the violence and calm things down, he can do that," he said. "He can turn himself in to a local Iraqi police station and he can face justice." An Iraqi judge this week issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with the murder of a rival Shi'a cleric last year.

Al-Sadr, meanwhile, who is believed to be in Al-Najaf, released a statement appealing to all Iraqis, regardless of religion, to help expel foreign troops from the country.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli yesterday said al-Sadr represents "political gangsterism." "Al-Sadr and his small number of followers, we don't see them as representative of a religious cause, but rather as representative of political gangsterism," he said. "They are not acting in the name of religion. They're acting in the name of arrogating for themselves political power and influence by violence."

Several clashes over the past 24 hours between al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army and coalition troops south of Baghdad are testing the resolve of the United States' partners in Iraq. In Kut, militiamen attacked an armored personnel carrier carrying Ukrainian soldiers, killing one and wounding five others. The Bulgarian base in Karbala also came under heavy fire, while Polish and Spanish troops clashed with Shi'a fighters. A Bulgarian truck driver was killed in a separate incident.

In Al-Nassiriyah, Italian forces killed 15 Shi'a insurgents yesterday, while in Amara, British troops killed another 15 Iraqis over the past two days. A soldier from El Salvador was killed in Iraq on 4 April.