NAJAF, Iraq - Thousands of followers of a virulently anti-American Shiite cleric heeded his calls for an uprising against the U.S.-led occupation, storming police stations and government buildings in several major cities yesterday and triggering clashes that left eight American soldiers and 21 Iraqis dead.
Hundreds of Iraqis - and more than three dozen U.S. soldiers - were also wounded in heavy fighting in central and southern Iraq. The seemingly coordinated attacks demonstrated the power of Iraq's Shiite majority and fanned long-held fears of an uprising in that population's southern stronghold.
Seven U.S. soldiers died in fighting in a Baghdad slum named after the cleric's assassinated father. Confrontations at a military base in the Shiite holy city of Najaf left at least one coalition soldier from El Salvador and 21 Iraqis dead, as well as more than 100 demonstrators injured. The Spanish Defense Ministry reported that a U.S. soldier was also killed in the clash near Najaf, but U.S. military officials could not confirm that information.
Skirmishes also erupted in the southern cities of Basra, Amarah and Nasiriyah. There was no sign hostilities would abate overnight.
The confrontation marked the culmination of months of tension between cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S.-led occupation forces. Almost all of the past year's attacks on the U.S.-led coalition forces are believed to have come from foreign fighters and Sunni Muslims loyal to the former regime of Saddam Hussein, which violently repressed Iraq's Shiite majority. Coalition officials have counted on the Shiites' support to stabilize the nation. Armed revolt by Shiites could threaten the U.S.-led occupation's June 30 deadline for handing power to the Iraqis.
Yesterday, U.S. tanks and troops rolled into a sprawling Baghdad slum known as Sadr City to prevent Sadr's supporters from causing more chaos.
"This is extremely dangerous," said Sheik Ghazi Al-Yawer, a member of the U.S.-backed Governing Council, which was forced to stay away from its offices yesterday. "What is happening in the south is very serious, it is a popular movement."
Yesterday's clashes were sparked by the arrest of a top Sadr aide for alleged involvement in the assassination a rival ayatollah last year. The arrest sparked rallies across the nation that began nonviolently Saturday, but by last night had escalated into running gun battles. The demonstration at the Spanish-run base in Najaf, about 80 miles south of Baghdad, ended only after coalition fighter jets and helicopters buzzed low over the crowds.
Secluded in a heavily guarded mosque in the nearby city of Kufa, Sadr issued an ambiguously worded pamphlet that called on his followers to quit their protest marches, but to find other ways to "horrify your enemy." He called the occupation forces "terrorists" and his supporters blamed coalition troops for starting the violence.
"Terrorize your enemy, God will reward you well for what pleases him. It is not possible to remain silent in front of their abuse," Sadr's statement said.
L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, condemned the violence during a news conference yesterday afternoon to announce the appointment of new Iraqi heads of the defense ministry and intelligence service.
Noting that Iraqis gained the freedom to hold public demonstrations after Hussein's ouster, Bremer said: "These freedoms must be exercised peacefully. This morning, a group of people in Najaf have crossed the line and they have moved to violence. This will not be tolerated."
The clashes with Sadr's supporters coincides with the approach of the Shiite holiday of Arbayeen, which begins Saturday. More than a million pilgrims are expected to flock to the Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf to mark the close of the traditional 40-day mourning period for the prophet Mohammed's grandson Hussein.
Sadr's organization has demanded to control security at holy sites for the holiday, but the United States has refused. In statements last week, Sadr warned his followers that any violence this weekend will be the fault of the Americans.
Sadr commands the loyalty of vast numbers of impoverished Shiites in the Baghdad slums and in southern Iraq. Although he is considered far more radical than the revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, he boasts a fervent following. Last fall, he began building a militia known as the Al Mahdi army, whose strength was undergoing its first test yesterday.
For months, Sadr has been in an uneasy standoff with the U.S.-led coalition. He has issued heated calls for Americans to leave Iraq. But except for a skirmish with coalition troops in October in a Baghdad slum, his forces have refrained from violence against the U.S.-led occupation.
Late last month, Sadr mobilized thousands of black-clad followers for angry, but nonviolent, protests after the coalition closed a newspaper loyal to the cleric. On Friday, Sadr escalated his rhetoric, vowing to become an Iraqi arm of Hezbollah and Hamas, Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups respectively.
The remark alarmed U.S. military officials. "You pay attention to any organization in this country that might be a threat to a democratic Iraq," one official told reporters last night.
Tension rose early Saturday when coalition troops stormed the Najaf home of Mustafa Yacoubi and detained him on a months-old warrant for alleged involvement in hacking to death a rival ayatollah outside a shrine in Najaf last April. Sadr's organization last night denied that Yacoubi had any role in the assassination.
Coalition officials, insisting on anonymity, said Yacoubi was taken into custody without incident and will be tried in an Iraqi court for the killing. They insisted that his arrest was not part of a campaign against Sadr's organization but a routine police action.
Twelve other suspects are in custody for the assassination and 12 additional warrants, issued by an Iraqi court, are outstanding, coalition officials said. They would not identify the other suspects.
After the Saturday morning arrest, Sadr supporters sped to Najaf and neighboring cities, where they began demonstrations. About 5,000 marched on the Spanish base outside town yesterday morning, demanding Yacoubi's release.
In downtown Baghdad yesterday afternoon, hundreds of Sadr supporters marched peacefully outside the coalition compound, calling for the release of Yacoubi and all other prisoners taken by the occupation troops. "This is not a show of force," said one Sadr official there. "This is demands."
By late afternoon, when reports of the violence streamed in from Najaf, the marchers had vanished. Inside the coalition compound, officials condemned the violence and vowed a firm response.
Dan Senor, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, played down the clashes with Sadr's supporters. "I wouldn't read much into it in terms of a broader confrontation. A majority of Iraqis are working with us," he said. "These incidents are not insignificant, but it is important to keep in mind that they are the exception, they are not the rule in the current state of affairs in Iraq."
Los Angeles Times staff writer Alissa Rubin in Baghdad and Saad Fakhr Eldeen in Najaf contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.