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Iraq: U.S. Troops Deployed Near Al-Najaf As Standoff With Al-Sadr Continues

Prague, 13 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Sporadic fighting was reported around the Sunni Iraqi town of Al-Fallujah today as U.S. military forces reinforced coalition positions around the southern city of Al-Najaf in their standoff with the radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The top U.S. troop commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, said there are now 2,500 U.S. soldiers deployed outside the Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf, where al-Sadr is believed to be.

One U.S. soldier was reported killed overnight when gunmen attacked a convoy of U.S. troops heading toward Al-Najaf.

Al-Sadr said he is ready to die for his campaign to rid Iraq of occupation forces.
U.S. forces are hoping to secure the capture of al-Sadr, who heads the Al-Mahdi Army and has called for an uprising against the coalition.

The U.S. deployment near Al-Najaf is backed by tanks and heavy artillery. The U.S. troops have set up a cordon on approaches to Al-Najaf, barring militia fighters from leaving. It is a larger force than the group of U.S. Marines that has been fighting a separate battle against Sunni insurgents in the city of Al-Fallujah since 5 April.

Al-Sadr appeared to be softening his stance, ordering members of his militia to leave police stations and government buildings in Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa.

A delegation of Shi'a clerics was also reportedly holding talks with al-Sadr in hopes of resolving the standoff.

But later today, al-Sadr told Lebanon's Al-Manar television he is ready to die for his campaign to rid Iraq of occupation forces.

The commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf region, General John Abizaid, told reporters yesterday that al-Sadr is isolating himself politically from the majority of Iraqi Shi'as.

"Muqtada Sadr is isolating himself," Abizaid said. "This was not by any stretch of the imagination a Shi'a uprising. And it's a combination of some military action on our part, but -- probably much more importantly -- very, very important Shi'a political action that is isolating him and showing people out there that a person such as Muqtada Sadr -- who is anti-democratic and attacks the people of Iraq and their institutions -- won't be tolerated."

In recent days, with Shi'a Muslims from around the world flocking to southern Iraq for the Arbain religious pilgrimage, U.S. forces have been cautious not to become engaged in combat within Al-Najaf or the nearby Shi'a holy city of Karbala.

But in a move likely to anger the Shi'a insurgents, U.S. troops today briefly detained an aide of al-Sadr at a Baghdad hotel after he was interviewed by Italian journalists. Television cameras captured scenes of angry commotion as the aide, Shaykh Hazem al-Araji, was bundled into an armored vehicle and taken away.

Al-Araji was later released. But one local tribal leader spoke angrily to journalists about the manner in which the al-Sadr aide had been arrested.

"They trapped [Hazem al-Araji]. They invited him to a news conference here. And here, near an armored vehicle, they received orders to detain him," the tribal leader said.

An uneasy cease-fire continued to hold today in the flashpoint Sunni town of Al-Fallujah despite reports of an intense gunfight overnight between U.S. Marines and Iraqi insurgents.

A U.S. helicopter crashed today some 20 kilometers east of the town after reportedly being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

A U.S. Marine commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brennan Byrne, said there was no immediate indication the crew had been injured, and the reason for the crash was not known.

U.S. troops trying to get to the wreckage were reportedly forced back after coming under heavy fire from gunmen. The gunmen and U.S. troops were locked in a standoff at a distance from the wreckage this afternoon.

Some fighting was also seen near Al-Fallujah at the town of Al-Karma. Clouds of smoke were seen after U.S. helicopters fired missiles at targets in that town.

Meanwhile, insurgents in Baghdad today fired what appeared to be three rocket-propelled grenades within the center of the capital, killing one Iraqi and sending up a plume of smoke from the U.S.-led administration's heavily guarded "green zone."

Incidents of suspected kidnapping of foreigners continued in Iraq, with the Italian Foreign Ministry today saying four of its civilians have been missing since yesterday.

Other foreigners believed to have been abducted are three Czechs, three Japanese, and nine Americans -- including two U.S. soldiers and seven employees of the U.S. private contractor Kellogg Brown & Root.

A group of five Ukrainians and three Russians abducted yesterday were released today unharmed. Seven Chinese civilians taken captive on 11 April were released yesterday.

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