Troops Continue to Battle Militants in Kufa

Fighting broke out Thursday in nearby Kufa between U.S. soldiers and Shiite militiamen — the eighth straight day of clashes since a deal last week to end the violence. The country's most influential Shiite cleric, meanwhile, tacitly endorsed Iraq's new interim government.

At least six Iraqis were killed and 11 injured in the skirmishes in Kufa, Najaf's twin city and stronghold of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search), militiamen hospital officials said.

Smoke rose over the dun-colored, flat-roofed houses of Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad. Late Thursday afternoon, strong explosions and heavy bursts of automatic weapons fire were heard in Najaf but the precise location was unclear.

Fighting has rocked Kufa since Shiite leaders announced May 27 that al-Sadr had agreed on a formula to end the confrontation with the Americans in Najaf and Kufa, which together contain some of the most sacred shrines in Shia Islam.

However, the Army has retained the right to mount armed patrols, which al-Sadr's militia, the al-Mahdi Army (search), considers a provocation. The Americans are reluctant to stop patrols until an Iraqi force is ready to assume security responsibility. Most of the police deserted after al-Sadr launched his rebellion in April.

In the past eight days, 17 Iraqis have been killed and 74 injured, according to hospitals in Kufa. U.S. forces say two U.S. soldiers have been killed and eight injured during the same period.

A cable TV news correspondent embedded with the 1st Armored Division in the area said fighting began after about 100 U.S. soldiers rolled into the center of Kufa early Thursday looking for militiamen who had fired mortar rounds at an American base between Najaf and Kufa, using in some cases lethal 120mm shells.

The correspondent quoted U.S. officials as estimating that about 30 militiamen were killed, but it didn't say when.

The U.S. military said soldiers from the 1st Armored Division's 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment came under mortar, rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire while approaching a school where weapons were believed stored.

"Soldiers returned fire, killing a significant number of attackers," the military said in a statement. "Three soldiers were wounded."

It said troops searched the school and found two 82mm mortar tubes, a 120mm mortar tube, two RPG launchers with RPGs; a light anti-tank weapon, several Kalashnikov assault rifles, 10 hand grenades; 40 60mm mortar rounds, and 20 120mm mortar rounds.

Although Najaf is relatively quiet, daily clashes in Kufa have rendered the truce almost meaningless. The Americans, who consider al-Sadr a gangster, have refused direct negotiations with him but have agreed to halt "offensive operations."

Following Thursday's initial clashes, residents of Kufa ventured carefully into the streets, examining charred market stalls and other signs of battle damage. At least one large crater pocked a dirt road. Merchants showed twisted piles of molten debris which had once been their sources of livelihood.

Others picked up shattered belongings amid the remains of their dwellings damaged in the exchange. One older man picked up the tail of a mortar round that had landed nearby and shook his head as he showed it to reporters.

"America attacks us and destroys our homes," said Ali Yasser, 21, who was guarding his house after sending his family out of the city. "It's a country of nonbelievers that hates Islam."

The uprising began two months ago after the U.S.-led coalition closed al-Sadr's newspaper, arrested a top aide and announced an arrest warrant charging him with murder in the April 2003 death of a moderate cleric in Najaf.

U.S. officials have long sought to suppress the outspoken anti-American al-Sadr, son of a revered religious leader believed have been murdered by Saddam Hussein's agents in 1999.

The fighting in Najaf and Kufa have raised fears of splits in the majority Shiite community, which aspires to political power in Iraq after the U.S. occupation ends June 30. Senior Shiite clerics oppose al-Sadr but have refrained from trying to silence him for fear of worsening communal splits and losing influence at a time when the young firebrand's anti-U.S. rhetoric is finding greater resonance among Iraqis.

After weeks of relative silence, the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani issued a statement here Thursday tacitly endorsing the new interim Iraqi government and urging it to lobby with the U.N. Security Council for genuine sovereignty to remove "all traces" of the occupation.

Al-Sistani noted that the new government, appointed Tuesday by a U.N. envoy, lacks the "legitimacy of elections" and does not represent "in an acceptable manner all segments of Iraqi society and political forces."

"Nevertheless, it is hoped that this government will prove its efficiency and integrity and show resolve to carry out the enormous tasks that rest on its shoulders," al-Sistani said in a statement released by his office here.

Al-Sistani's opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq effectively scuttled two blueprints for transferring power. His endorsement, albeit tacit, gives the government a much-needed boost of legitimacy as it prepares to take office at the end of the month.

The elderly, Iranian-born cleric said other major tasks facing the government would be to improve security and ease the economic burden of the Iraqi people. U.S. and Iraqi officials believe the most urgent task is to restore security, at least to a level where national elections can be held by the end of January.

Nevertheless, violence continues throughout this troubled nation.

Late Wednesday, a rocket struck a U.S. base in the northern oil-producing center of Kirkuk, triggering a fire which spread to an ammunition storage area. That sent off thunderous explosions which persisted late into the night, although U.S. officials said no one was killed or seriously injured.

In the northern city of Mosul, a woman translator working for the Americans was killed by four unknown attackers, according to an official at a city hospital. Iraqis working for the occupation authority have long been targeted by insurgents trying to drive a wedge between the Americans and the Iraqi people.

And in the multiethnic city of Kirkuk, masked men attempted to gun down Irfan Kirkukli, the province's deputy governor, in an ambush on his convoy as he drove to his office, said Maj. Gen. Anwar Mohammed Amin, commander of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (search).

Kirkukli's bodyguards returned fire and the attackers fled. Kirkukli was not harmed.