BAGHDAD, April 4 (UPI) -- A demonstration in the southern city of Najaf turned deadly as Salvadoran soldiers -- under Spanish command -- exchanged fire with supporters of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the city of Najaf. Reports from the scene indicate that at least 19 protesters and 4 coalition troops were killed.
The violent clash has left much of the Shiite sections of Iraq in near chaos.
This represents the most serious clashes between coalition forces and the Shiite population. Previous large scale fighting has usually occurred between coalition forces and Sunni population, from which more militant members and former Baath Party members had led a year long resistance to the U.S.-led presence.
But the Shiites -- which had suffered terrible oppression under Saddam's rule -- have been reluctant to resort to violence, preferring demonstrations and political maneuvering to confrontation.
If full scale fighting breaks out, which Sunday night it appeared as very possible -- between U.S. forces and the Shiite followers of Sadr, it would represent the largest setback for the U.S. occupation of Iraq so far, as Iraq's 60 percent Shiite population, which has rarely fought the coalition -- could be forced to choose sides. That would set the stage for a bloody civil war, or more widespread opposition to the U.S.-led presence from a population that has arguably benefited the most from the U.S. invasion.
Tensions increased earlier this week between the U.S. and the Shiites, as Sadr's followers have been protesting the suspension of his weekly newspaper, al-Hawza by the Coalition Provisional Authority. The recent arrest by coalition forces of a Sadr deputy, Mustafa al-Yacoubi, has further inflamed tensions. While Sadr is a very junior cleric and commands far less respect than other top religious leaders, his charismatic blend of Islamic fundamentalism and gadfly criticism of the CPA has built him a significant and dedicated following in parts of Iraq.
After the estimated 5,000 demonstrators traded gunfire with the troops in Najaf, crowds turned out in Baghdad, Kerbala, and Sadr's home village of Kufa to "declare war on the American occupation," said one supporter.
The vast Shiite slum of Sadr City -- named for Moqtada's cleric father who was killed by the Baath regime in 1999 -- went into near chaos Sunday afternoon after the news of the fighting in Najaf.
After a demonstration by hundred of people protesting Yacoubi's arrest demonstrated in a Baghdad square -- where sporadic gunfire was heard but casualties witnessed by UPI -- the members of Sadr's banned militia, the Mehdi Army, were seen arming themselves and preparing for combat outside Sadr's offices in Sadr City.
Trucks and minibuses with license tags from all over the predominantly Shiite south of Iraq were seen streaming in to Sadr City and unloading waves of young men in the black t-shirts of the Mehdi Army, which has previously never openly displayed weapons banned by the occupation forces.
In front of Sadr's headquarters, they were seen arming themselves with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket propelled grenade launchers and organizing in military formations before deploying throughout the neighborhood in cars and pickup trucks.
The men were also seen forming roadblocks to prevent entry into the neighborhood, which has upwards of 3 million people living in one of the most densely populated urban settings east of the Gaza Strip.
As night fell, U.S. military vehicles, tanks and troops could be seen setting up roadblocks around the neighborhood themselves and reports of widespread fighting in the area have been reported by sources in the neighborhood.
One resident told UPI by phone that Sadr's militia had seized all five of Sadr City's police stations are were declaring their own form of martial law. There are also reports that U.S. infantry backed by helicopters and tanks have entered the neighborhood to reclaim the police facilities from the militia.
These developments come even as all of Iraq has been waiting for the U.S. response to the horrific attack and mutilation of four government security contractors in Fallujah, a Sunni city 35 miles west of Baghdad.
Fallujah has been the scene of repeated attacks against American troops and is widely thought to be a stronghold of anti-U.S. forces in Iraq. U.S. coalition and military officials had vowed a major response to the killings of the four -- who were burned and hung from a local bridge. At the same time, protesters had been striking in central Baghdad all week in response to the closure of the Hawza newspaper, but each day had seen only peaceful protests until Sunday. Whereas the U.S. military still has most of Fallujah cordoned off and that city of 500,00 continues to await a response.