Mosque bombed as Iraq deteriorates

Coalition forces have been battling to contain a surge of violence in recent days, as both Shia and Sunni Muslims have resisted the presence of US-led forces in the country.

The US military said the air strike targeted insurgents who had fired from inside the mosque compound – it also claimed it had bombed the wall of the compound, not the mosque itself.

The bombing came as US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted US troops are facing a “serious problem”, and that US troops due to leave Iraq are to remain to stamp out a spate of uprisings and attacks against American forces.

Mr Rumsfeld stressed that apart from the holy city of Najaf, where radical Shiite Muslim leader Moqtada Sadr has reportedly taken refuge, Iraq was still under the control of coalition forces.

On Wednesday there was no sign of an easing in the fighting that has raged around several Iraqi cities since Sunday, leaving more 200 Iraqis dead, as well as about 30 coalition troops, including 12 Americans killed in a single incident in Ramadi.

Hundreds of Iraqis have been wounded since Sunday when Mr Sadr’s militiamen unleashed protests and US forces started an offensive in the Sunni town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad.

Faced with the escalating violence, Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for a peaceful settlement to the country’s problems to avoid further chaos and bloodshed.

“We will not be shaken by the thugs and terrorists,” said US President George W Bush in a speech in response to the violence.

“These killers don’t have values… We face tough action in Iraq but we will stay the course.”

Meanwhile, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the US-led coalition’s deputy operations chief, vowed to destroy Sadr’s Mehdi Army which has been outlawed by the occupation authorities.

Just outside the northern city of Kirkuk, 13 Iraqis were killed and 20 wounded in an exchange of gunfire with US troops during a demonstration to protest US attacks on Fallujah, police and medics said.

In the southern city of Kut, Sadr’s men forced Ukrainian coalition troops to withdraw after heavy fighting left one Ukranian dead and five others wounded.

Overnight, four Iraqis were killed in a US air raid on Baghdad’s Sadr City, a Shiite slum. Three more died from wounds sustained in fighting a day earlier, a hospital director said on Wednesday.

At least 64 people have been killed and 242 others wounded in the district since Sunday.

In the southern Shiite city of Karbala, a Sadr aide, two militiamen and five Iranian passersby were killed and 16 wounded during overnight clashes between US troops and the Mehdi Army.

On Tuesday, 12 US marines were killed and two dozen wounded when 60 to 70 Iraqi insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons attacked them in Ramadi.

Ramadi is in the toubled Sunni Triangle, near Fallujah, where US forces have been hunting those responsible for the brutal murders of four US security contractors last week.

But calm returned to the southern city of Nasiriyah on Wednesday after a day of fierce fighting left 15 Iraqis, including three insurgents, dead.

The coalition has issued a warrant for the arrest of Sadr, a descendant of an illustrious religious family, for the murder last April of a rival cleric. His aides have vowed he will never be captured or surrender.

Despite the violence, UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi continued talks with interim leaders Wednesday on means to help keep to the scheduled handover of power to Iraqi sovereignty, set for June 30.

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