Sadr leaves mosque as battles spread

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The Independent Online

The Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr is reported to have left the fortress-like mosque where he has been holed up for days.

The Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr is reported to have left the fortress-like mosque where he has been holed up for days.

The news of his departure came as uprisings continued across Iraq, involving not only American forces, but also British, Spanish and Italian troops.

Sadr's suppporters clashed today with British troops in the southern city of Amarah, and witnesses reported seeing Iraqis killed in the fight.

Sadr had been in the main mosque in the city of Kufa, south of Baghdad, with dozens of militiamen outside vowing to resist any US attempt to arrest him after they said was an outlaw facing an arrest warrant.

. But in a statement released by his office in the nearby city of Najaf, Sadr said he had left the mosque, fearing it would be damaged in an assault.

"I feared that the sanctity of a glorious and esteemed mosque would be violated by scum and evil people," he said.

Al-Sadr did not say in the statement where he had gone, but said he was willing to "shed my own blood" for Iraq.

"I would like to direct my words to the father of evil, Bush," he said. "Who is against democracy? Is it the one who calls for peaceful resistance or the one who bombs people, sheds their blood and leads them away from the leaders under feeble and dirty pretexts?"

Sadr, a firey 30-year-old cleric, frequently denounces the US. occupation in his sermons and has built up his own militia, the al-Mahdi Army, though he has avoided calling for attacks on US troops.

The arrest warrant was issued on charges that Sadr was involved in the slaying of a rival cleric last year.

Meanwhile the toll amoung US forces continued to mount. Three soldiers were killed in separate fighting around Baghdad and four US Marines died "as a result of enemy action" in western Anbar province, the military said.

The four members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force were killed yesterday while "conducting security and stabilization operations".

Anbar province's most-populous city is Fallujah, which hundreds of Marines have surrounded, ready to launch a crackdown on insurgents after a mob killed four Americans and mutilated their bodies last week. The province stretches from Baghdad to the Jordanian and Syrian borders.

The three slain soldiers, members of the 1st Armored Division, were all killed in northern Baghdad's Khazimiya district.

One was killed yesterday when a US convoy was attacked with small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. A second soldier died when his vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade during a firefight. The third died after his Bradley vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade today.

Speaking from Baghdad today, US Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt insisted the country was not slipping into anarchy.

He said during a GMTV interview: "There has been an upsurge of violence recently but that upsurge of violence ... is a very small number of people relative to the overall population.

"The overall population remains very committed to the process of moving this country towards democracy and sovereignty."

Asked whether the arrest of al-Sadr could provoke more violence, he added: "The question is, if we do not arrest him, will that just delay and appease violence in the long term?"

Meanwhile it was confirmed that thousands of British troops will fly out to Iraq this week to relieve British forces already serving there, the Ministry of Defense said Tuesday.

The 4,500-strong 1st Mechanized Brigade will take over from 20 Armored Brigade in southern Iraq, a spokesman said, adding that the deployment was starting this week and would take about 10 days. Britain has some 8,700 troops stationed in Iraq.

The latest British contingent didn't amount to additional troops, a spokesman said.

"They are not additional," he said. "It is one brigade taking over from another.

"We always keep things under consideration and review but there are no plans in the pipeline at the moment to send out additional troops."