US militia and cleric's forces fight in holy city

The United States military on Wednesday accused fighters loyal to a rebel cleric of firing on American forces from one of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines. Seven militiamen were killed in fighting in the center of Karbala, hospital officials said.

Separately, a group linked to al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for Monday’s car-bomb assassination of the Iraqi governing council president in a statement posted on a militant Islamic website.

The head of the Monotheism and Jihad Group is believed to be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian wanted by the US in connection with numerous terrorist attacks. He is suspected of strong links to Osama bin Laden’s network.
It was the second group to claim responsibility.

In Karbala, the militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was operating from the Imam Hussein shrine in the center of Karbala, said Captain Noel Gorospe, spokesperson for the US army’s First Armoured Division.

The city south of Baghdad has been the scene of heavy fighting since al-Sadr launched an uprising against the US-led coalition last month.

“They use mainly the windows of the second floor of the shrine” to fire at troops, Gorospe said at Camp Lima, a coalition base on the outskirts of Karbala. Insurgents were using small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, and their use of the shrine was more noticeable in the past three days, he said.

American troops and militiamen fought on Wednesday near a militia checkpoint close to another holy site in Karbala, the Imam Abbas shrine, witnesses said.

The US military confirmed there was fighting on Wednesday, but did not say where.

An al-Sadr militiaman was killed overnight and six others were killed in fighting on Wednesday morning, said hospital sources who requested anonymity.

Daily insurgent attacks have centred on Karbala’s Mukhaiyam mosque and the surrounding area, which the US military took over in operations last week. The coalition said Iraqi fighters are using the mosque as a military base, and said it has no intention of relinquishing the mosque until militias leave the town.

Gorospe said an AC-130 gunship was used in an air strike against insurgents around the Imam Hussein shrine in recent days, but said it did not shoot into the shrine.

Since Tuesday, US F-16 jets have been flying over Karbala around the clock.

Al-Sadr has accused US forces of desecrating shrines in Karbala and another holy city, Najaf. The US military denies the allegations, saying militiamen have used Muslim holy places as firing positions and storerooms for weapons.

Militiamen fired two mortar rounds at a US convoy in Najaf on Wednesday, witnesses said. The shells missed their target, hitting a hotel and a residential buiding and injuring five civilians, including two boys.

On Tuesday, three civilians were killed and 11 injured in fighting in Najaf, said Hussein Hadi, deputy director of al-Hakim hospital. It wasn’t clear which side was responsible.

About 300 Iraqis from Baghdad and other areas travelled on Wednesday to Najaf to protest the alleged desecration of holy sites by US forces. The group of mostly young men gathered outside the Imam Ali shrine, waving Iraqi flags and photos of al-Sadr.

The statement by the Monotheism and Jihad Group was the second internet claim of responsibility for the killing of Abdel-Zahraa Othman, better known by the name he had adopted in exile, Izzadine Saleem. A statement had been posted on Monday by a previously unknown Iraqi group, the Arab Resistance Movement.

“Another lion of the lions of the Monotheism and Jihad Group leapt to seize a rotten head from among the heads that betrayed God and his prophet and those who sold their religion and lives to their American masters and those who are allied with them.”

The statement, whose authenticity could not be confirmed, said other members of the Iraqi governing council could meet the same fate.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the chief military spokesperson in Iraq, initially said the car bombing that killed Saleem had the “classic hallmarks” of al-Zarqawi. But Kimmitt later said another group may be to blame “because of methodology in some of the techniques that were used”. He did not elaborate.

On May 6, the Monotheism and Jihad Group issued a web claim of responsibility for an attack on the US-led coalition’s headquarters in Baghdad that killed five Iraqi civilians and a US soldier.

An earlier purported al-Zarqawi statement appeared on a website claiming responsibility for an April 24 suicide boat attack on Iraq’s oil terminal in the Gulf that killed three American service members.—Sapa-AP

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