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US raids mosque in Iraq, kills 32

Shi'ites protest move on cleric's stronghold

KUFA, Iraq -- US and Iraqi forces raided a Kufa mosque yesterday where they said insurgents stored weapons, and the military said at least 32 fighters loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were killed during the first American incursion into the holy city.

US troops also clashed with Sadr militiamen in a Shi'ite district of Baghdad and in Najaf, the twin city of Kufa. Nine US soldiers were wounded yesterday around Baghdad, the military said, including four injured in a mortar attack east of the capital.

In the holy city of Karbala, militia fighters appeared to have abandoned their positions after weeks of combat.

And a US Marine was killed in a car bombing near Fallujah, a center of the separate Sunni Muslim insurgency in the central and northern areas of the country.

American tanks and troops moved into the heart of Kufa, a stronghold of Sadr, for the first time since the fiercely anti-US cleric launched an uprising against the coalition early last month. Sadr, sought in the April 2003 killing of a moderate rival cleric, has taken refuge in Najaf and routinely delivers a Friday sermon in Kufa.

US soldiers fought militiamen near Kufa's Sahla mosque and then raided it for weapons after an Iraqi counterterrorism force ''cleared" the site, the military said. Soldiers seized a machine gun, two mortar tubes, and more than 200 mortar rounds, along with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and rounds, according to a statement.

American troops smashed the gate to the mosque complex with an armored vehicle and killed people inside, mosque employee Radhi Mohammed said. A photojournalist saw bloodstains on the ground indicating that someone had been dragged for at least 10 yards. There also was blood in mosque bathrooms.

The fighting around the Shi'ite holy cities south of Baghdad, among the world's most sacred Shia sites, has enraged Shi'ite communities in Iran and elsewhere.

In Tehran, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said his country sent a ''warning" message to the United States through the Swiss Embassy concerning American actions in Iraq. Switzerland looks after American interests in Iran. Asefi did not say whether the warning involved military actions around the holy cities.

''There were American forces in that local mosque last night," said Major David Gercken, spokesman for the First Armored Division. ''They went in after the Iraqi forces."

Sheik Mansoor al-Asadi, head of the central council of tribes in the Najaf area, said he was ''astonished" by the Kufa raid, saying it undermined efforts by local leaders to resolve the standoff between Sadr and the coalition peacefully.

Salama al-Khafaji, a Shi'ite member of the Iraqi Governing Council, denounced the US move against the mosque as a ''violation of sanctity" that will put an added burden on Iraqi authorities who work with the Americans.

But Major General Martin Dempsey, commander of the First Armored Division, said US forces took care not to damage Shi'ite Muslim shrines even though militiamen used them as fighting positions.

''We have no intention of entering the shrines," Dempsey said, adding that Iraqi security forces would enter them if necessary.

Sadr's supporters have accused the military of desecrating holy places.

American troops also fought his militia, known as the al-Mahdi Army, around Kufa's technical college and a building known as Saddam's Palace, the military said. Thirty-two militiamen died, it said.

Medical personnel at the city's Furat al-Awsat hospital said at least 10 people were killed and 11 were wounded; it was unclear whether those numbers included the fighters or referred to civilians. No American casualties were reported.

Resident Mohammed Abdul-Kareem said the dead included three civilians whose houses were damaged in the fighting.

Sixteen people also were wounded in clashes between US forces and Sadr loyalists in Najaf yesterday, according to hospital officials and witnesses. Two other militiamen were wounded when three projectiles exploded in central Najaf.

In Karbala, no Sadr fighters or American forces were seen on the streets yesterday, but the US military denied allegations by Sadr's office that all the combatants agreed to withdraw from the city.

''There was no cease-fire, no deal made in Karbala," Gercken said.

''We do not and will not make deals with militias or criminals."

US forces captured 10 militiamen overnight in Karbala but encountered little resistance during patrols, Gercken said.

The Marine was killed about 6 miles northwest of Fallujah, the US military said. The attack involved a car bomb, said Major T.V. Johnson, spokesman for the First Marine Expeditionary Force.

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