The United States-led coalition in Iraq was on Friday threatened with suicide attacks as leading Shiite and Sunni clerics warned troops against assaulting cities where armed rebels are holding out.
The radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said his supporters would ”resort to suicide operations” if soldiers attempted to penetrate Iraq’s holy cities.
”If we are forced to defend our cities, we will resort to suicide operations and we will be human time-bombs which would explode in their faces,” he said at Friday prayers in Kufa, just outside the holy city of Najaf, 160km south of Baghdad, where he has been holed up since US troops surrounded the city.
”We have enough weapons and a large number of followers, and there are many believers who are ready to conduct suicide operations,” he said.
”Until now we had refused to do this,” he said. ”But if we are forced to do it, we will.”
As he spoke at least 10 people were injured when fighters loyal to al-Sadr battled with Eastern European troops of the coalition in the holy Shiite city of Karbala, according to hospital officials and witnesses.
A Sunni leader, Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Ghafur Samarrai, also warned the coalition it faced an uprising throughout Iraq if US forces attacked the flashpoint city of Fallujah.
Coalition military leaders warned time was running out for insurgents in the Sunni city, 50km west of Baghdad, to hand over their heavy weapons as part of a ceasefire deal after more than two weeks of fighting.
The clashes in Karbala lasted about 30 minutes, and left an Iranian pilgrim, four civilians and five militiamen injured and destroyed an all-terrain vehicle of the coalition troops, witnesses and hospital staff said.
”At about 12.10pm [8.10am GMT], the coalition forces convoy was attacked near the city hall,” the coalition’s multinational division said in a statement. ”The patrol returned fire.”
It said reinforcements from the division’s First Brigade Combat Team were sent to secure city hall and surrounding areas. The team is made up of Polish, Bulgarian, Lithuanian and Latvian troops.
City hall is located near the office of an al-Sadr religious foundation and the al-Mokhayam mosque controlled by al-Sadr loyalists.
Karbala, 110km south of Baghdad, is one of the cities that US troops have threatened to retake after a surge of violence in April by sections of both the Sunni and the Shiite communities killed scores of soldiers and hundreds of Iraqis.
Al-Sadr loyalists seized Karbala by force early this month and coalition planes this week dropped leaflets on the city, urging militiamen to hand over their weapons and withdraw from public buildings.
An uneasy standoff had been in effect over the past few days, with Iraqi police hunkered down around official buildings and patrolling only near holy sites while al-Sadr militiamen were deployed near the cleric’s local headquarters.
US forces have so far stopped short of taking the battle to Najaf and Karbala, the country’s two holiest cities, following warnings to stay out by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shiite majority in Iraq.
US forces want to arrest al-Sadr, who has been linked to the murder of a rival cleric a year ago, and are demanding the dismantling of the Mehdi Army.
Tensions remained high in Fallujah but Iraqi authorities on Friday sharply downgraded the death toll from this month’s fighting there that followed the slaying of four US contractors on March 31, two of whom were mutilated by angry mobs.
”Between April 5 until Thursday [April 22] at 9am [local time] according to official Health Ministry figures, 271 people were killed and 793 wounded,” said Iraq’s interim Health Minister, Khodayir Abbas, adding that the casualties were ”Iraqi martyrs”.
During the same period, 305 Iraqis were killed and 1Ã‚Â 261 wounded in clashes between Shiite Muslims and coalition troops in Baghdad, central and southern Iraq, he said.
Iraqi mediators and hospital officials had previously said that about 600 to 700 people had died during the bloodiest fighting since the US-led invasion in March last year. Scores of US troops were also killed in the fighting and sporadic fierce clashes.
The death toll from Wednesday’s coordinated series of five suicide bombings in and around the British-controlled southern city of Basra rose to 74 with more than 160 wounded on Friday. The coalition blamed Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda extremist network for the attacks.
The US overseer in the country, Paul Bremer, is set to deliver a televised address to the nation on Friday and outline reforms to a system keeping former members of the now disbanded ruling Ba’ath party out of top government jobs. — Sapa-AFP