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U.S. Commander Says Shi'ite Militia Controls Two Cities

Al-Mahdi fighters Baghdad, 8 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, says a Shi'ite Muslim militia has at least partial control of two southern Iraqi cities.

Sanchez said the Al-Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has taken full control of the city of Al-Kut and partial control of Al-Najaf. Residents of Al-Kufah said militiamen had some control of that city as well.

Sanchez said there appear to be low level links between the Shi'ite militia and Sunni militants who are fighting coalition forces in central Iraq. But he said coalition troops will continue their offensive against al-Sadr's fighters.

"In a number of cities in southern Iraq, new engagements by Sadr's militia are being met by a determined coalition response. Offensive operations will continue to take the fight to Sadr's militia, its leaders, and facilitators," he said.

In Karbala, Polish and Bulgarian troops fought Al-Mahdi Army militants as hundreds of thousands of Shi'ites were gathering ahead of a religious festival. The Polish Army said commanders were meeting with moderate Shi'ite clerics after radicals demanded the withdrawal of coalition forces.

Sanchez said U.S. troops had the Sunni Muslim city of Al-Fallujah "under siege." But an Iraqi aid convoy nevertheless made it through U.S. roadblocks earlier today.

In another development, Iraq's Interior Minister Nouri al-Badran today announced his resignation, saying he had heard the U.S.-led administration was unhappy with his performance and wants a different religious mix in the cabinet.