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U.S. Helicopters Fire On Al-Sadr Militia In Baghdad

Baghdad, 5 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Fresh violence broke out today across Iraq -- in Baghdad, in the British-controlled southern port of Al-Basrah, in the central holy Shi'a city of Karbala, and in Al-Fallujah, west of the capital.

Today's clashes come one day after running battles between supporters of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S.-led forces near Al-Najaf and elsewhere resulted in the deaths of nine coalition troops and at least 21 Iraqis. Scores were injured.

In Baghdad, fighting raged for a second day today as U.S. troops and Apache helicopters opened fire on members of Muqtada's private army during fierce gun battles in the western Baghdad district of Al-Showla.

RFE/RL correspondent Sami Alkhoja, who was on the scene, described what he saw: "People were firing at the helicopters. [I saw] two or three people were killed and a few injured. There were conflicts between the Americans and Muqtada's followers."

Alkhoja said the atmosphere in the area is tense and that al-Sadr's followers are heavily armed. "Lots of people are carrying machine guns, heavy, heavy machine guns and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and [they are] really, really well equipped."

A police outpost near Karbala also came under gunfire and grenade and mortar assault today.

Separately, U.S. Marines announced today they have launched an offensive in Al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad, where four U.S. contractors were brutally killed last week. A statement from the U.S. consulate says highways that run from Baghdad to Jordan through Al-Fallujah will be closed indefinitely due to "military activities."

The British Defense Ministry have said members of al-Sadr's militia "peacefully" took over a government building in Al-Basrah, in southern Iraq, overnight. However, other reports say armed militants stormed the building and raised a green flag on the roof.

Militiamen holding assault rifles and RPGs were seen today chanting slogans in support of al-Sadr from the rooftop: "Yes! Yes! Muqtada! Yes! Yes! Muqtada! No! No! America! No! No! America!"

Shaykh Sattar al-Bahadli, the head of al-Sadr's office in Al-Basrah, told the French AFP news agency that militants have handed a letter with their demands to British troops.

Al-Bahadli was reported as saying the protests will continue until the U.S.-led coalition reopens al-Sadr's "Al-Hawza" newspaper, ends its siege of al-Sadr's offices, and releases all of al-Sadr's followers, including senior aide Mustafa al-Yaqubi.

Al-Yaqubi is being held on charges related to the murder of a moderate Shi'a cleric last April, shortly after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.

The top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, today called al-Sadr an "outlaw" who threatens Iraq's security. Bremer said al-Sadr's actions will not be tolerated. "[Al-Sadr] is effectively attempting to establish his authority in the place of the legitimate authority of the Iraqi government and the coalition and, as I said yesterday, we will not tolerate it," Bremer said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military says a U.S. soldier died in roadside bomb attack yesterday in the northern city of Mosul.