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Savage fighting raged across Iraq yesterday as at least 20 US soldiers were killed in attacks on the American-led coalition that reached a crescendo of violence not seen since the end of the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
At least a dozen US Marines were killed in the town of Ramadi near the Sunni hotbed of Fallujah, a US official said, when their position near the governor’s palace in the city was attacked by dozens of Iraqis. The official said a "significant number" of Iraqis were also killed.
Five marines were also reported killed in fighting in an operation to get Americans into Fallujah itself, where four Americans were killed and mutilated a week ago. Iraqi casualties are unknown from those clashes because ambulances are not being allowed to enter the town. A further three US soldiers were killed in Baghdad. The latest confirmation of deaths meant more than 30 US troops have been killed since trouble erupted in three cities on Sunday.
There was also heavy fighting in the Shia cities of southern Iraq yesterday between supporters of the militant Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr and coalition troops. Fifteen Iraqis were killed by British troops in Amara on the Tigris river north of Basra and a further 15 Iraqis died and 35 were wounded in gun battles with Italian soldiers for control of the bridges over the Euphrates in Nasariyah. A Ukrainian soldier was killed and five wounded when two armoured vehicles were set ablaze in Kut, a Shia city south of Baghdad.
The war in Iraq has entered a new stage as the militia of the Shia leader Sadr, whom the US wants to arrest, has taken to the streets. Up to now almost all the attacks on the allies have taken place in Sunni Muslim districts such as Fallujah and towns north of Baghdad. For the first time most of the US casualties are being inflicted by Shia. The fighting over the past two days brings to more than 620 the number of American troops killed in Iraq since the war began.
In Baghdad there was a sense of the crisis spiralling out of control yesterday with the US having to face a new battle front against the black-clad militia of Sadr. He is believed to have moved to a house in an alleyway in Najaf, one of the two holiest cities for Shia Muslims. It would be impossible for foreign troops to arrest him there without provoking a violent and more widespread Shia reaction.
"My fate will be either assassinated or arrested," said Sadr, whose militia, the Army of Mehdi, has taken over the holy shrine of Imam Ali, whose golden dome rises in the centre of Najaf. In a statement, Sadr pledged: "The US-led forces have the money, weapons and huge numbers but these things are not going to weaken our will because God is with us."
It was impossible to reach Fallujah yesterday after it was sealed off by 1,200 US Marines and two battalions of Iraqi security forces. US commanders have pledged to conduct house-to-house searches to find and punish those who killed four US civilian contractors and hanged their burnt and mutilated remains from the metal girders of a bridge over the Tigris.
The main road from Baghdad to Jordan, which passes close to Fallujah, was closed yesterday by US soldiers manning a razor-wire barrier who waved vehicles on to a road which skirts the town. The scanty reports of the fighting said that marine combat patrols, supported by helicopter gunships, were launching reconnaissance missions but coming under fire from guerrillas.
"The city is surrounded," said Lieutenant James Vanzant, a spokesman for the marines. "We want to make a very precise approach to this. We are looking for bad guys in town." It is not clear where the five marines were killed, the official statement saying only that they died in Anbar province. This area, stretching from Baghdad to the Jordanian border, includes the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi and has a population of 1.25 million–almost all Sunni Muslims known for their Islamic and nationalist militancy.
The allies have tried to present Sadr as an isolated militant but the evident strength of his forces, making attacks in all the main Shia towns, shows that Paul Bremer, the US civilian leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority, has miscalculated badly in seeking or stumbling into a confrontation with him. On 28 March, Mr Bremer suddenly closed Sadr’s newspaper, al-Hawza. He then arrested Mustafa Yaqubi, Sadr’s lieutenant in Najaf, which in turn provoked demonstrations and attacks on police stations and government buildings in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
"Muqtada Sadr does not represent the vast majority of Iraqi Shias," Tony Blair said yesterday. "He represents a small band of extremists. But the events of the last few days shows that Sadr’s men are well-organised, committed and able to tap into a general feeling of hatred among Shia towards the CPA."