Death toll passes 100 for US occupation forces

The death of four more American soldiers in Iraq yesterday took to 102 the number killed in military action since President George Bush announced the end of major combat operations.

Three American military policemen died when their patrol fought a short but savage gun battle with the guards of a senior Shia cleric in the shrine city of Karbala 50 miles south-west of Baghdad. Two Iraqi policemen and eight guards were also killed. The fourth American soldier to die yesterday was killed by a roadside bomb in the Baghdad area.

The confrontation in Karbala shows that the occupation forces want to clamp down on Shia militias and underlines the multiple threats facing American troops in Iraq.

Malik Kazim, a gunman who took part in the fighting, was quoted as saying that it started when an American-Polish patrol with Humvees and armoured vehicles drove past the office of a senior Shia cleric called Mahmoud al-Hassani, a sympathiser of radical Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, before midnight on Thursday. Some 20 armed guards were outside the office, possibly because of fighting between Shia militias in Karbala earlier this week.

Karbala is under the control an international detachment of 9,500 troops commanded by the Poles who contributed 2,500 soldiers. On this occasion they were accompanied by American military police and local Iraqi police. The patrol ordered Mr Hassani's guards to go inside the office and, when they refused, fierce fighting broke out for half an hour. "Those Jews wanted us out of the way so they could kill our master," said Mr Kazim.

Gunfire broke out again yesterday in Karbala after Shia gunmen took up positions on rooftops with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Karbala is one of the holy cities of the Shias, who make up 55 per cent of Iraq's population, and last weekend a million worshippers attended a religious festival in the city.

The United States has so far trodden carefully in dealing with the Shia, who generally welcomed the fall of Saddam Hussein but want to take power through elections. They believe that as a majority of the Iraqi population, they are bound to win. The Shia community is by no means monolithic but many of its leaders suspect that the US and its Iraqi allies are planning to rob them of power, as has so often happened in the past.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, the US will be pleased at signs that Mr Sadr, the Shia cleric who rules Sadr City (formerly Saddam City), where 1.5 million Shias live, is having difficulty in mobilising support. The Americans have threatened a showdown with him after he denounced the occupation this week and his men fought gun battles in Karbala. He also declared he was setting up his own government.

But the number of worshippers at Friday prayers outside Al-Ahrar mosque in Sadr City was only about 10,000. Prayers were to end with a peaceful demonstration march on Sadr City town hall, where the Americans installed a hand-picked local council on Thursday after evicting Mr Sadr's supporters. The building is now guarded by tanks.

The sermon by Imam Abdel-Hadi Daraji was a blend of religious and nationalist appeals. But the crowd chanted "Yes, yes to Muqtada!" without much conviction. When prayers ended about 3,000 people were prepared to march.

The guerrilla war against occupation over the past six months has been sporadic and largely confined to Baghdad and the Sunni Muslim provinces to the north. But in recent weeks there have been signs that attacks on US soldiers are spreading northwards to the oil city of Kirkuk.

A rocket-propelled grenade was fired into an American compound on Thursday in an attempt to kill an Iraqi politician, Muhammad Khurshid, a member of the Iraqi National Accord, which is co-operating with the US.

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