Radical Shiite cleric leaves mosque

A radical Shiite cleric sought by United States forces said on Tuesday he left the fortress-like mosque where he has been holed up for days, surrounded by armed supporters. Muqtada al-Sadr, in a statement released by his office, did not say where he had gone.

The US declared al-Sadr an “outlaw” after his militiamen battled coalition troops on Sunday in Baghdad and outside Najaf in fights that killed 61 people — including eight US soldiers.

US officials announced an arrest warrant against al-Sadr on Monday, suggesting they would move soon to detain him.

Al-Sadr suppporters clashed on Tuesday with British troops in the southern city of Amarah, and witnesses reported seeing Iraqis killed in the fight. British officials had no immediate comment.

Since Sunday, al-Sadr was in the main mosque in the city of Kufa, south of Baghdad, with dozens of militiamen outside vowing to resist any US attempt to arrest him. But in a statement released by his office in the nearby city of Najaf, al-Sadr said he had left the mosque, fearing it would be damaged in an assault.

“I feared that the sanctity of a glorious and esteemed mosque would be violated by scum and evil people,” he said. The Americans “will have no qualms to embark on such actions”.

Al-Sadr did not say in the statement where he had gone, but he took a defiant tone, saying he was willing to “shed my own blood” for Iraq and denouncing US President George Bush, who said Monday that al-Sadr aimed at wrecking democracy in Iraq.

“I would like to direct my words to the father of evil, Bush,” al-Sadr said. “Who is against democracy? Is it the one who calls for peaceful resistance or the one who bombs people, sheds their blood and leads them away from the leaders under feeble and dirty pretexts?”

Al-Sadr, a firey 30-year-old cleric, frequently denounces the US occupation in his sermons and has built up his own militia, the al-Mahdi Army, though he has avoided calling for attacks on US troops.

The arrest warrant was issued on charges that al-Sadr was involved in the slaying of a rival cleric last year.

The arrest of an aide to al-Sadr last week on the same charges prompted widespread protests by al-Sadr supporters that turned into heavy gunbattles in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City and outside Najaf.

Basra under police control

Basra was under Iraqi police control on Tuesday after US-led forces and supporters of al-Sadr struck a deal to avoid further deadly clashes, an aide to the cleric said.

“An amicable agreement was concluded between the various parties in the presence of a representative of coalition forces, under which only the police will be responsible for security in the city,” said Sheikh Salem Adel Saleh.

Members of al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia who seized the governor’s office in Iraq’s main southern city on Monday have also left the building, he said.

An AFP correspondent in the city confirmed that only Iraqi police were patrolling Basra.

According to Saleh, al-Sadr’s representative on Basra’s governing council, the British forces in charge of the city have agreed to suspend patrols and other operations.

He said they have also agreed to lobby US coalition officials to accept demands issued by al-Sadr, whose followers have clashed with coalition troops across southern and central Iraq since Sunday.

There was no immediate confirmation from British officials.

Seven US soldiers killed

Meanwhile, three US soldiers were killed in separate fighting around Baghdad and four US marines died “as a result of enemy action” in western Anbar province, the military said in two statements on Tuesday.

The four members of the First Marine Expeditionary Force were killed on Monday while “conducting security and stabilisation operations”, it said. It gave no other details.

Anbar province’s most-populous city is Fallujah, which hundreds of Marines have surrounded, ready to launch a crackdown on insurgents after a mob killed four Americans and mutilated their bodies last week. The province stretches from Baghdad to the Jordanian and Syrian borders.

The three slain soldiers, members of the First Armoured Division, were all killed in northern Baghdad’s Khazimiya district.

One was killed on Monday when a US convoy was attacked with small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. A second soldier died later the same day when his vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade during a firefight. The third died after his Bradley vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade on Tuesday.

The names of the soldiers were not released.

US forces have battled followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in clashes around Baghdad in the past two days. — Sapa-AP, Sapa-AFP

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