BAGHDAD, April 5 (UPI) -- Coalition troops clashed with insurgents across Iraq as armed militias took partial control of some cities and a confrontation with a young Shiite cleric threatens to cast the already unstable country into complete civil war.
As the one-year anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime approaches, the U.S.-led coalition -- which had previously only had to fight former regime fighters and outside terror groups -- finds itself in open warfare with the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a 30-year old junior cleric whose bombastic anti-occupation rhetoric had previously been considered an irritant.
Now his followers openly control small portions of Baghdad and stalk the streets carrying weapons, firing on coalition troops and drawing a military response that has killed at least a dozen civilians in the crossfire. Scores of Iraqis died in various clashes across the country, while at least 12 U.S. soldiers also died. But with the fluid nature of the fighting and inaccessibility of many of the conflict areas to reporters, exact figures are impossible to gauge.
At the same time that the coalition was engaged in its first sustained rebellion by portions of Iraq's Shiite population, it also was in the process of settling old scores in the western city of Fallujah, where the U.S. Marines had closed the city of 500,000 people while hunting for insurgents that have long irritated the occupation authority with sustained attacks on troops.
As the day progressed, coalition officials announced that an Iraqi judge had indicted Sadr on murder charges for the killing of another cleric a year ago as Baghdad fell. It is the same indictment that led to the arrest of his aide this weekend. Any arrest of Sadr will certainly lead to even more widespread anti-coalition violence.
Sunday night saw the first of a series of raids by the Marines against targets in Fallujah, which was the scene of the gristly killings and mutilation of four U.S. contract employees working with the Coalition Provisional Authority. By Monday the city was completely sealed off to all traffic and reports from inside the city indicated that the Marines had occupied the city center -- the first American troops to do so in months -- and that widespread fighting had commenced.
But it is the conflict with the Shiite followers of Sadr -- who controls a seminary and charity system he inherited from his father -- that offers the newest pessimistic signs for the transition of Iraq in a year of terror and strife.
Although Sadr has been a persistent critic of the occupation, he'd been marginalized by the far more influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an Iranian born cleric widely considered the Iraqi Shiite's spiritual leader. But with the CPA suspension of Sadr's newspaper and the subsequent arrest of one of his top aides last week, his significant following in the poorest regions of Iraq -- southern Shiite towns and the ghettos of Baghdad -- became inflamed to the point that Sunday's exchange of gunfire between Sadr supporters and Spanish-led coalition troops in Najaf -- which killed over 20 Iraqis and four coalition soldiers -- was enough to send much of the country into chaos.
By Sunday night, UPI witnessed Sadr's Mehdi Army -- which had previously claimed to be an unarmed paramilitary force -- outside Sadr's chief Baghdad office arming itself for war.
As a UPI reporter hastily left the scene of hundreds of men in black t-shirts and headscarves arming themselves with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades, four Humvees loaded with U.S. infantry were seen headed in the direction of the office. Within hours, two of the vehicles were destroyed; eight soldiers and dozens of Iraqis were dead. According to witnesses, after the attack on the Humvees, the Mahdi Army immediately seized five Iraqi Police stations; a nightlong battle for control of the neighborhood -- and its three million residents -- was waged.
"They came in the Humvees and we kicked their asses," said Tariq Mohammed, a 20-year resident who claimed to participate in the fight, in the shadow of an American tank.
"But after we burned the two Humvees, their tanks came late last night and shot everyone," he added pointing at the turret gunner of the tank 50 meters away.
By daybreak, U.S. M1A2 tanks were stationed throughout key intersections of the neighborhood, which had fallen quiet. But the charred remains of two Humvees -- in a section of town completely controlled by Sadr's men -- and the huge numbers of dead and wounded crammed into the local hospital told a story of carnage in which dozens of Iraqis found themselves caught between militia members and the heaviest weapons in the U.S. Army arsenal.
Just blocks from the U.S. tanks, the main market area of Sadr City was leveled and smoldering with white smoke and the remains of tire fires lit in an unsuccessful effort to keep American troops out of the neighborhood. An angry crowd set up on a caravan of reporters with rocks and sticks, forcing them to flee despite the presence of armed escorts from the Mehdi Army.
But two blocks from that ugly scene, the residents crowded around the wreckage of the Humvees with a more open version of jubilation over the scorched wreckage.
"No, no America," shouted exuberant children and young men as they played among the wreckage of the once powerful war machines.
No less than 12 bodies of civilians -- including two young children -- could be seen in the hospital, where the morgue was overflowing with dead, leaving bodies wrapped in shrouds on the patio in front of the building. And these were the bodies of the unclaimed, unidentified victims -- family members had been claiming their dead all morning and had taken at least another 12 away for burial, according to doctors.
More dead were also shipped to Baghdad's Kindi Hospital, which has a larger refrigerator facility.
"I never saw a more despicable and evil action by the Americans (last night)," Dr. Tariq Atham said. "Even (Ariel) Sharon (Prime Minister of Israel) or Saddam are better. Saddam hurt us Shiite a lot, but what we're seeing from the Americans is shit. They shot children and women in the face and neck every time. Saddam never did that."
Mehdi Army sources told UPI that only noncombatants were taken to the hospital and the Mehdi had taken significant casualties, but their dead and wounded were only taken to local mosques.
"We want to die anyway, so we go to a mosque," one militia member told UPI. "They don't want to be arrested or have the Americans find them in the hospital."
By nightfall Monday, sources in the neighborhood reported that renewed fighting had begun in that neighborhood.
Later on Monday afternoon fighting between the Mahdi Militia and American troops erupted across town in another poor Shiite neighborhood of Ash Shulam, where two more vehicles were destroyed as U.S. soldiers attempted to close one of Sadr's offices. The fight occurred a mere kilometer from a U.S. Army base, but the resistance was so fierce that Apache attack helicopters were forced to attack the crowd to allow the troops to evacuate four wounded soldiers.
Five Iraqis were killed and over 100 well-armed Mahdi members could be seen patrolling the streets and looting the burning vehicles. U.S. troops seemingly abandoned the streets to the mob.
Thirty-five miles to the west of Baghdad, reports of heavy fighting came from members of anti-coalition -- who contacted UPI through an intermediary.
"We killed five Marines last night, but they continue to occupy the center of Fallujah," one source told UPI. "But we have taken many losses and many Iraqis were killed in the fighting. But (Monday night) will drive them from our city."
As a result of the fighting in and around Fallujah, the nearby highway -- which serves as the only artery between Amman, Jordan and Baghdad -- had been shut "indefinitely" by the military.
Sources in Fallujah also told UPI Monday night that an offer to negotiate a peaceful settlement by the tribal Sheikh of Fallujah, Hatim al-Alwani, had been rejected by the Marines.
"The Americans want revenge for the four American deaths (last Wednesday,)" a source in Fallujah said.