Troops killed as Iraqi chaos deepens

The US military is struggling to contain the insurgency, with violence spreading to numerous towns in Shia and Sunni areas.

The man wanted for inciting the violence, firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has gone into hiding in the holy city of Najaf, where he remains surrounded by thousands of his supporters.

The Pentagon said Iraqi insurgents have launched a major assault on its forces in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, killing as many as 12 marines.

A Pentagon spokesman said dozens of insurgents took part in the Ramadi attack and there were significant casualties among them.
Ramadi lies in the “Sunni triangle” – a hotbed of anti-coalition activity.

More than 20 people were reported killed in a US air strike on Fallujah, another centre of Sunni resistance west of Baghdad.

Foreign troops have fought pitched battles with followers of Moqtada al-Sadr – his followers have vowed to persist with the uprising that has claimed more than 130 lives in three days.

The bloody clashes with Shiites are a new front for US-led forces already fighting an insurgency in Sunni areas and trying to pacify Iraq.

The US has set June 30 for a handover of sovereignty to an Iraqi government.

Qays al-Khazali, one of Mr Sadr’s aides, has compared the uprising to a 1991 Shiite rebellion eventually crushed by Saddam Hussein. He said it will go on until the cleric’s demands are met.

He said: “The uprising will continue and we will not negotiate unless they fulfil our demands, which are a withdrawal from populated areas and the release of prisoners.”

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, in London for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said thousands more troops might be needed to maintain order.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that if commanders on the ground request additional forces, they will be sent.

“They will decide what they need and they will get what they want,” he said.

Amid the increasing insecurity, Iran has warned its nationals not to travel to neighbouring Iraq, even for brief pilgrimages to Shia Muslim holy sites, Iranian state media reported.

The unrest was triggered by the closure of Mr Sadr’s al-Hawza newspaper a week ago on the grounds that it was inciting violence.

A statement by the cleric, quoted by Reuters news agency, said: “This insurrection shows that the Iraqi people are not satisfied with the occupation and they will not accept oppression.”

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