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Iraq Heats Up After Bounty Offer

Gunmen attacked British patrols in Basra and clashed with coalition troops Saturday in two other southern cities, a day after a Shiite cleric's aide offered worshippers money for killing or capturing soldiers.

The aide, Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli, offered the rewards in response to the mistreatment and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. guards — a sign that the abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib was spilling over into the confrontation between U.S. troops and the al-Mahdi Army militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr also pointed to Abu Ghraib in a sermon he delivered at Friday prayers in Kufa before thousands of worshippers. "What sort of freedom and democracy can we expect from you (Americans) when you take such joy in torturing Iraqi prisoners?" al-Sadr said, his shoulders draped with a white coffin shroud symbolizing his readiness for martyrdom.

In other developments:

  • Spc. James Holmes, a North Dakota National Guard soldier who was injured Monday in Iraq, died at the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, early Saturday morning. Holmes, 29, suffered shrapnel wounds when a roadside bomb exploded while he was on patrol.
  • A U.S. soldier from the Army's Stryker Brigade was killed Saturday in an "electrical accident," the U.S. command said. The statement said the incident, which occurred in Mosul, was under investigation, and the Army released no further details. The Stryker Brigade, part of the 2nd Infantry Division, takes its name from an armored vehicle used by the command.
  • Seven Iraqi prisoners being transported for release were wounded Saturday when a roadside bomb blasted their U.S. military convoy west of Baghdad, the U.S. Marines said.
  • The new commander of Abu Ghraib, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, blamed the prison's former leadership for the abuse committed late last year, saying "leaders and soldiers (were) not following the authorized policy and lack of leadership and supervision." Miller said everything is being done to prevent a repeat of the prisoner abuse.

    Saturday's clashes in the cities of Amarah and Basra were the strongest show of force in the area in days by the al-Mahdi Army — perhaps an attempt to raise a diversion while the U.S military intensifies its crackdown on al-Sadr in the holy cities he controls, Najaf, Kufa and Karbala to the northwest.

    U.S. forces have been gradually moving against al-Sadr strongpoints in those cities. Fighting in Karbala and Najaf on Friday killed at least 23 Iraqis, including six members of a family.

    U.S. troops backed by tanks entered Karbala from two directions on Saturday, blocking roads leading to the Imam Hussein Shrine at the city center. Troops traded fire with al-Sadr gunmen, and two armored vehicles were seen in flames.

    Coalition troops also arrested al-Sadr's main representative in the southern city of Nasiriyah, Sheik Moayad al-Asadi, coalition officials said. Gen. Francesco Paolo Spagnuolo, the commander of the Italian troops in Basra said Italian Carabinieri in Nasiriyah arrested three Iraqis suspected of links to al-Sadr and of planning attacks on the coalition.

    Hundreds of black-garbed al-Mahdi Army militia massed in Basra's streets, attacking passing British patrols and sparking skirmishes in several neighborhoods. At least two Iraqis were killed and three British soldiers wounded, a British military spokesman said.

    British troops repelled an attack by gunmen on the governor's building. British armored vehicles pursued large numbers of gunmen into Basra's impoverished Hanaya neighborhood. Unable to enter the district's small alleys, the British traded fire with militiamen firing from behind buildings.

    British troops in some 50 vehicles surrounded al-Sadr's headquarters in an hours-long standoff with militiamen inside.

    The British Ministry of Defense said troops had quelled the uprising. By the afternoon, the situation was "under control," a ministry spokesman said.

    A fierce gunbattle broke out in front of the Iraqi Central Bank, and gunmen seized a key bridge on the main route from the city to points south. Al-Bahadli led a group of dozens of gunmen who took control of a main intersection on the southern side of Basra, witnesses said.

    Gunmen attacked a military convoy outside Amarah, lightly wounding two British soldiers and sparking shootouts in several parts of the city, as helicopter gunships hovered overhead to provide support. British troops swept briefly into al-Sadr's office in the city, witnesses said.

    Witnesses reported nine militiamen killed in the fighting, and one child was killed when his house was struck by a projectile.

    Also Saturday, attackers set off a bomb outside the house of a police official in the town of Habhab, 35 miles north of Baghdad. The blast killed two women and a man from the official's family, doctors said.

    A Polish soldier was killed after walking into an "improvised booby trap with explosives" near the city of Imam, Polish Lt. Col. Robert Strzelecki said. Near Karbala, one Polish soldier was killed and two others injured in a road accident, when a civilian truck hit their vehicle in a convoy, sending it rolling down an embankment.

    "This is basically the worst day (so far) for Poland," Strzelecki said.

    On Friday, Poland's best-known war reporter, Waldemar Milewicz, was killed along with a colleague by gunmen who ambushed their TV crew on a road south of Baghdad.

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