Iraqi cleric's fighters drive out Italian troops
Two US soldiers, 3 coalition workers die in other action
BAGHDAD -- Fighters loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr drove Italian forces from a base in the southern city of Nasiriyah yesterday and attacked coalition headquarters there with grenade and mortar fire as tensions in the Shi'ite region escalated.
Two US soldiers died elsewhere. Gunmen also killed three Iraqi women working for the US-led coalition.
Two Iraqi fighters were killed and 20 were wounded in battles in Nasiriyah, mostly at two bridges crossing the Euphrates River, residents said.
The Italian troops evacuated as their base came under repeated attack. Portuguese police were called to support the Italians, seeing action for the first time since the force of 128 deployed to Nasiriyah in November, a Portuguese duty officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
At least 10 Italians were wounded, one critically, contingent spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Giuseppe Perrone said by phone. He said the Italians relocated to the nearby Tallil Air Base.
Elsewhere in Nasiriyah, a convoy transporting the Italian official in charge of the city, Barbara Contini, came under attack as it neared the headquarters of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Perrone said. Two Italian paramilitary police were wounded.
Fighting in Nasiriyah began Friday. All but two civilian staffers of the coalition were evacuated from their headquarters and taken to a military base because of attacks by Sadr's fighters. The radical cleric launched an uprising last month and faces an arrest warrant in the murder of a rival moderate cleric last year.
Elsewhere in southern Iraq, assailants in Basra fired a mortar shell that hit a house near a British military base, killing four Iraqi civilians, including 2-year-old twin girls, witnesses said. Four people were wounded. All the victims were related.
Also, gunmen fired on a minibus and detonated explosives in Baghdad yesterday, killing two Iraqi women and the driver and injuring another woman. Police said the women were working for the Americans but did not specify their jobs.
Early yesterday, a female Iraqi translator working with US troops was killed and another was critically injured when gunmen broke into their houses in Mahmoudiyah, said Dawood al-Taee, director of the city's hospital.
The civilian killings appeared to be part of a rebel strategy to deter cooperation between Iraqis and the coalition, which plans to hand over sovereignty June 30.
One US soldier was killed Saturday night when a bomb exploded beside a vehicle in Baghdad, the Army said yesterday. A second soldier died of wounds suffered during a firefight Saturday south of the capital, the military said.
No further details were released.
The deaths bring to 777 the number of US service members who have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq last year. Of those, 567 died as a result of hostile action and 210 died of nonhostile causes.
In central Baghdad, several explosions were heard near the US-controlled Green Zone. It was unclear what caused the blasts; smoke could be seen rising from the west side of the Tigris River.
The coalition is trying to disband Sadr's militia and sideline its radical leadership before handing power to a new Iraqi government. American forces and Sadr's supporters fought heavy battles in recent days in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
American tanks drove through the center of Karbala yesterday and exchanged gunfire with insurgents. The tanks also opened fire to break up an anti-American demonstration.
Coalition forces guarding large quantities of captured arms and explosives at Karbala's Mukhaiyam mosque came under mortar fire three times overnight, said Lieutenant Colonel Robert Strzelecki, spokesman for the Polish-led multinational force in south-central Iraq.
Earlier in the week, coalition troops drove out insurgents using the mosque as a base of operations.
Apparent gunfire slightly damaged one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines in Najaf on Friday, prompting calls for revenge against the Americans and even suicide attacks against the coalition.
The US military has said Sadr's Mahdi Army was probably responsible, but Iran's supreme leader yesterday accused the United States of damaging the shrine through "foolish" actions.
Two US tanks were stationed yesterday in a main square in Najaf, while militiamen held positions in the cemetery and other areas.