U.S. Troops In Iraq Cemetery Clash

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U.S. troops and insurgents clashed Tuesday in a sprawling cemetery in the holy city of Najaf, as American forces drove through the city's streets calling on militants to give up their arms.

U.S. tanks were seen heading to the area followed by sounds of explosions in fighting a day after Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has led an uprising against the U.S.-led occupation, warned that he would fight "until the last drop of my blood has been spilled."

On Tuesday, U.S. forces urged Najaf's residents to cooperate.

"We ask residents to cooperate with the Iraqi army and police," said a voice in Arabic through a loudspeaker Tuesday in Najaf. "There will be no truce or negotiations with terrorists."

In other recent developments:

  • On Tuesday, a roadside bomb went off as a U.S. military vehicle drove by in central Baghdad, slightly injuring two soldiers, said Sgt. James Kerphat from the 1st Cavalry Division.

  • A Lebanese businessman was freed Tuesday after about one week in captivity in Iraq, his father said. Robert Antoun said his son Antoine contacted him from the Iraqi capital, saying he was safe and in good health. He said he was released Tuesday and would return to Lebanon later in the week. The younger Antoun, who worked in a dairy factory in Iraq, was snatched by gunmen on a Baghdad street earlier this week.

  • Also Tuesday, the U.S. military said that a Saudi man held at a U.S. detention camp near the southern city of Umm Qasr escaped. The man, identified as Abdullah Salem al-Kahtani, broke out of Camp Bucca on Thursday, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson. The man is believed to have fled from the camp, where the U.S. military is holding about 2,500 security detainees, and crossed the nearby border into Kuwait, according to media reports Tuesday.

  • Two Jordanian and two Lebanese hostages were freed from captivity in Iraq on Monday, according to relatives. All four were truck drivers. The Jordanians were held captive for two weeks; the Lebanese for a week.

    Meanwhile, a militant group threatened to launch a campaign of attacks against Iraqi government offices and warned public employees not to go into work. The group, calling itself the Divine Wrath Brigades, said its "military rebellion and the shelling" would start Tuesday against state buildings.

    "We warn all civilian government employees and others ... against going to the offices and institutions where they work because they could be subjected to shelling," the group said in a statement released Monday.

    In its statement, the Divine Wrath Brigades claimed responsibility for a number of recent attacks on government ministries, U.S. military bases, hotels housing foreign journalists and contractors and the Green Zone — home to the U.S. and British embassies as well as Iraqi government offices.

    The statement was read out by a masked gunman shown among a number of militants in another videotape obtained by APTN.

    The group's claim could not be independently verified.

    The uprising by al-Sadr's Mahdi Army began to affect Iraq's crucial oil industry, as pumping to the southern port of Basra — the country's main export outlet — was halted Monday because of militant threats to infrastructure, an official with the South Oil Company said.

    About 1.8 million barrels per day, or 90 percent of Iraq's exports, move through Basra, and any shutdown in the flow of Iraq's main money earner would badly hamper reconstruction efforts. Iraq's other export line — from the north to Turkey — is already out of operation.

    In southern Iraq, clashes intensified around Basra, where a British soldier was killed and several others wounded in fighting with militia near the cleric's office Monday, the British Ministry of Defense said. Three militants were killed and more than 10 others wounded, a senior Iraqi police official said.

    In the holy city of Najaf, the main scene of fighting, U.S. forces tried once more to drive militiamen out of a sprawling cemetery, and an American tank rattled up to within 400 yards of the Imam Ali Shrine, Najaf's holiest site, which fighters have reportedly been using as a base.

    Al-Sadr's vow to keep fighting was a defiant challenge to Allawi, who visited Najaf on Sunday and called on the Shiite militants to stop fighting.

    "I will continue fighting," the young, firebrand cleric told reporters in Najaf. "I will remain in Najaf city until the last drop of my blood has been spilled."

    President Bush said Monday that coalition forces were "making pretty good progress about stabilizing Najaf."

    U.S. military officials estimated that 360 insurgents were killed from Thursday, when fighting began, and Sunday night, a figure the militants dispute. Five U.S. troops have been killed in the fighting. About 20 police also have been killed, Najaf police chief Brig. Ghalib al-Jazaari said.

    • Joel Roberts

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