KUFA, Iraq – U.S. troops clashed with militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) in fighting that killed at least 23 Iraqis, and al-Sadr denounced U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners in a defiant sermon Friday. Gunmen killed two journalists on the road to the troubled cities.
An aide to al-Sadr offered rewards for the capture of coalition troops and told worshippers that anyone who captures a female British soldier can keep her as a slave — apparently in retaliation for the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.
Six members of a family, including three children aged 2, 4 and 5, were killed and three others were wounded when their home was hit, apparently by American fire, during a mortar clash between U.S. troops and al-Sadr fighters in Najaf (search) overnight. At least one militiaman was also killed in the battle.
Clashes during the day in Najaf killed at least 12 al-Sadr gunmen, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt (search) said in Baghdad, adding that a 500-pound bomb was dropped early Friday to take out a mortar position. At least four Iraqis were killed in fighting in Karbala, according to hospital sources.
Despite the presence of hundreds of U.S. troops nearby who have vowed to capture him, al-Sadr traveled from Najaf to the main mosque in nearby Kufa surrounded by a large number of his heavily armed black-garbed gunmen, including at least one carrying an anti-aircraft gun.
"Yes, yes, to freedom! Yes, yes to independence," several thousand worshippers chanted as the young renegade cleric delivered a sermon blasting the United States over the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.
"What sort of freedom and democracy can we expect from you (Americans) when you take such joy in torturing Iraqi prisoners?" said al-Sadr, his shoulders draped with a white coffin shroud symbolizing his readiness for martyrdom.
An aide to al-Sadr in the southern city of Basra (search), which is controlled by British troops, also offered rewards for the capture or killing of British soldiers or U.S.-allied Iraqi leaders.
Waving an assault rifle as he delivered his Friday sermon at a Basra mosque, Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli (search) said anyone who captures a British solider would get $350 — or $150 for killing one.
Al-Bahadli also told worshippers that anyone who captures a female British soldier can keep her as a slave and showed off what he claimed were documents and photos of three female Iraqi prisoners being raped in a British-run prison.
Two journalists from state-run Polish television — a Pole and a dual Algerian-Polish national — were killed and a Polish cameraman was wounded in the arm as they drove from Baghdad to Najaf when gunmen in another vehicle sprayed their car with gunfire.
The two dead were identified as Waldemar Milewicz, a correspondent for Poland's TVP television, and TVP producer Mounir Bouamrane. The wounded cameraman, Jerzy Ernst, was taken to a U.S. hospital in Baghdad and his injuries were not life-threatening.
Meanwhile, in the northern city of Mosul, a roadside bomb went off by a passing Iraqi police patrol Friday afternoon, killing four policemen.
U.S. troops have not moved to capture al-Sadr for the past four weeks as he has attended the Kufa prayers. The military has been treading carefully in its confrontation with al-Sadr and his al-Mahdi Army militia, fearing that if it is too aggressive near some of Shiism's holiest shrines it will inflame Iraq's Shiite majority.
Still, U.S. forces have intensified the crackdown over the past week, with increasingly bloody clashes in several southern cities. On Friday, large explosions and gunfire were heard near the mosque that serves as al-Sadr's headquarters in central Karbala — about 500 yards from two major shrines. The shooting was heard soon before Friday noon prayers.
The exchange of fire followed hours of clashes in at least three other parts of the city that lasted from before dawn until midmorning.
At least two militiamen and two other Iraqis were killed in the fighting, and 14 wounded, hospital officials said.
A day after U.S. forces seized the governors' offices from the al-Mahdi Army (search), al-Sadr's gunmen were out in force in Kufa and Najaf on Friday, fearing a U.S. assault to capture al-Sadr could be imminent. Militiamen and U.S. troops had a fierce mortar exchange overnight.
Fighters — draped with ammunition belts and carrying automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers — moved around the streets of the two cities in large numbers and took positions behind earthen mounds and behind buildings.
But U.S. commanders suggested they would stick to their policy of not moving against him on Fridays out of respect for the weekly Islamic day of prayer.
In Kufa, al-Sadr's vehicle pulled up right next to the door of the main mosque, and the cleric slipped quickly in. For much of his sermon, al-Sadr denounced the abuse at Abu Ghraib (search), which has caused outrage across the Arab world.
Al-Sadr demanded guards who have been charged with abuse be handed over to Iraqis courts for trial and dismissed apologies from Bush. "I tell this to Bush," al-Sadr said. "Your statements are not enough. They (the guards) must be punished in kind."
Early Friday, four mortar rounds and a rocket-propelled grenade hit near an Italian base in the southern city of Nasiriyah, one wounding two Iraqi police officers, an Italian spokesman said.
In the mortar exchange in Najaf overnight, a half dozen shells hit the U.S. base, and the Americans responded with heavy mortars and artillery, destroying the militia's mortar position, U.S. officers said.
During the return of fire, a shell hit the home of Aziba al-Izza, 28, killing her husband, 2-year-old daughter, as well as her brother-in-law, his wife and their two young sons.
"It was around midnight and we were preparing to go to bed," al-Izza said at a Kufa hospital, where she lay in bed with shrapnel wounds. "The bomb fell on our room." Two other daughters were also wounded.
A dead militiaman was also brought to the hospital, but his body was taken away by two wounded gunmen who were brought in with him, doctors said.