NAJAF, Iraq – Supporters of an anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric rioted in Baghdad and four other Iraqi cities, sparking fighting that killed at least 50 Iraqis, eight U.S. troops and a Salvadoran soldier, in the worst unrest since the spasm of looting and arson immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein (search).
The fiercest battle took place Sunday in the streets of Sadr City (search), Baghdad's largest Shiite neighborhood, where Shiite militiamen fired from rooftops and behind buildings at U.S. troops, killing seven Americans. At least 28 Iraqis were killed in the fighting, a doctor at one local hospital said Monday.
In fighting in the holy city of Najaf Sunday, two soldiers — a Salvadoran and an American — died and at least nine other soldiers were wounded, the Spanish Defense Ministry said. Twenty-two Iraqis died and more than 200 were wounded, said Falah Mohammed, director of the Najaf health department.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops on Monday sealed off Fallujah, apparently ahead of a major operation to pacify the city, one of the most violent cities in the heartland of the insurgency against the American occupation.
U.S. commanders have been vowing a massive response after insurgents killed four American security contractors in the city, west of Baghdad, on Wednesday. After the slayings, residents dragged the Americans' bodies through the streets, hanging two of their charred corpses from a bridge, in horrifying scenes that showed the depth of anti-U.S. sentiment in the city.
The insurgency that has plagued U.S. troops in Iraq for months has been led by Sunni Muslims. But Sunday's clashes in Baghdad and three other cities threatened to open a dangerous new front: a confrontation with Iraq's powerful Shiite Muslim majority, which has until now largely avoided violence with the Americans.
Hundreds were wounded in Sunday's violence in Baghdad, Najaf, Nasiriyah and Amarah. The riots were ignited by the arrest on Saturday of an aide to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search). Followers of al-Sadr also took over the offices of the governor in the southern city of Basra.
The U.S. troops moved into Baghdad's Sadr City after militiamen took over five police stations in the neighborhood. At least two Humvees burned in the streets, and tanks rolled in, crushing cars.
Al-Shawadir hospital, one of two hospitals in Sadr City, received 28 dead Iraqis and 90 wounded from the fighting, said a doctor, Qassim Saddam. It was not immediately known if the second hospital had received any casualties.
By Monday morning, the militiamen had been forced out of the police stations, and U.S. tanks were parked in one of the neighborhood's main markets.
During a street protest by some 5,000 people Sunday, al-Sadr supporters opened fire on the base of Spanish troops near the Shiite holy city of Najaf, sparking a battle that lasted several hours.
In nearby Kufa, al-Sadr supporters took over a police station.
The unrest appeared to be a show of force by al-Sadr, a 30-year-old cleric known to his reverent followers as 'al-Sayed,' or master. Al-Sadr has the backing of hundreds of young seminary students and many impoverished Shiites, devoted to him because of his anti-U.S. stance and the memory of his father, a Shiite religious leader gunned down by suspected Saddam agents in 1999.
"I am happy to die for al-Sayed," said one protester, 21-year-old Ali Hussein, after he was shot in the arm in the Najaf fighting. "Take me to see my mother first then let me die."
Al-Sadr issued a statement later Sunday calling off street protests and saying he would stage a sit-in at a mosque in Kufa, where he has delivered fiery weekly sermons for months.
But the statement also called on followers to "do what you see fit in your provinces. Strike terror in the heart of your enemy ... We can no longer be silent in the face of their abuses."
Some of al-Sadr's followers in Baghdad said they interpreted this as a call for armed resistance against U.S. forces.
Sunday's violence — along with the unrelated killings of two Marines in Anbar province — pushed the U.S. death toll to at least 610.
The violence was touched off by the arrest of Mustafa al-Yacoubi (search), a senior aide to al-Sadr, on charges of murdering Abdel-Majid al-Khoei, a rival Shiite cleric. A total of 25 arrest warrants have been issued in the case, and 13 suspects have been taken into custody, an official at the coalition headquarters said.
Al-Sadr supporters also were angered by the March 28 closure of his weekly newspaper by U.S. officials. The Americans alleged the newspaper was inciting violence against coalition troops.
Militiamen demonstrating on Sunday against al-Yacoubi's detention also traded fire with Italian troops in the southern city of Nasiriyah and British troops in Amarah.
Shiites comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people but were brutally repressed by Saddam, a Sunni Muslim. Al-Sadr is at odds with most Shiites, who hope to gain substantial power in the new Iraqi government.
In other developments Sunday:
—Two U.S. Marines, both assigned to the 1st Marine Division, were killed by an "enemy action" in Anbar province Saturday, the military said. One died Saturday and the other Sunday, the statement said without providing details.
— In Kirkuk, also in the north, a car bomb exploded, killing three civilians and wounding two others, police said.
— U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer announced the appointments of Ali Allawi, the interim trade minister, as the new defense minister and Mohammed al-Shehwani, a former Iraqi air force officer who fled Iraq in 1990, as head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service.
— U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Baghdad with a team to help in the transition to an interim government after sovereignty is handed back to Iraqis on June 30.