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Coalition Forces Clash with Shi'ite Militiamen in Southern Iraq - 2004-05-12

Fighting continued Wednesday in southern Iraq between coalition forces and Shi'ite militiamen. In the capital Baghdad, there was mixed reaction among Iraqis to the beheading of an American businessman. And, the man in charge of the tribunal that will put former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on trial now says it is not likely the former dictator will be handed over to Iraqi authorities before June 30.

U.S. troops battled supporters of wanted radical Shi'ite clergyman Moqtada al-Sadr Wednesday in the holy city of Karbala.

The fighting began late Tuesday and continued into Wednesday near the Shi'ite Mehdi army compound, which was reported to have been destroyed.

U.S. troops sealed off access to the city early Wednesday morning.

Moqtada al-Sadr is wanted by authorities for the killing last year of a rival pro-US cleric. The Mehdi army has been waging fierce battles against coalition forces in several southern cities in Iraq including Karbala, Najaf and Kufa.

Wednesday, the clergyman held a news conference in Najaf, where he said he intends to continue fighting coalition forces. He said the Mehdi army is ready for any escalation of the fighting. He also said he would disband his militia if Shi'ite leaders asked him to. However, he has not responded to past demands from religious leaders to curtail fighting by the Mehdi militiamen.

Reaction in Baghdad Wednesday to the beheading of an American businessman was varied.

Businessman Nicholas Berg, 26, who was kidnapped last month, was shown on an Internet video file Tuesday being decapitated with a large knife by a group of men wearing masks. The video appeared on an Islamic Web site that has links to the terrorist group al-Qaida.

Some Iraqis said they thought the killing was a natural response to the mistreatment of Iraqi civilians by U.S. soldiers. Others said it was a senseless murder.

The expert on terrorism at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Hala Mustafa, says the terrorists videotaped the beheading for a specific purpose.

?I think the motivation of such extremists groups is to glorify their work or their movement and to aggravate the negative impact on the American side. It's like a part of the terrorist war against what they call the enemies or unbelievers,? Ms. Mustafa said.

Mr. Berg's body was discovered over the weekend along a road in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the director of the Iraqi Special Tribunal that will put former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on trial has changed his estimate of when U.S. authorities would hand over the dictator to Iraqi officials.

On Tuesday, Director General of the tribunal Salem Chalabi said Saddam and about 100 former regime members would be transferred to Iraqi authorities before the U.S. hands over sovereignty to Iraq June 30. On Wednesday, he issued a statement saying it is premature to discuss timetables and it is unlikely the Iraqi tribunal will be ready to take custody of defendants before June 30.

Mr. Chalabi said the United States has indicated it is willing to hand over individuals it has in custody after the defendants are officially indicted. He said he believes war crimes trials will begin early next year.