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US Troops Attack Rebel Cleric Gunmen Near Shiite Mosque in Karbala - 2004-05-12

U.S. troops in Iraq have attacked an area around a Shiite mosque in the southern town of Karbala to root out gunmen loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who, they say, were using the compound to store weapons. The attack came as the wanted cleric vowed to continue his struggle against U.S. forces, but also hinted at the possibility of a peaceful resolution.

Armed militiamen open fire on the streets of Karbala, one of the holiest cities in the Shiite branch of Islam, just hours after coalition soldiers backed by tanks and air power attacked a mosque compound. The U.S. military says it was being used to store weapons and provide sanctuary to gunmen loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

At least 20 militiamen were reported killed in the battles, which correspondents in Karbala say have left armed al-Sadr followers holed up in a mosque and surrounded by American tanks.

During a rare news conference in Najaf, the 31-year-old cleric, while remaining defiant, also appeared to soften his previous calls for disciples to wage war against the coalition. He said a decision to dissolve militias loyal to him has to be made by more senior clerics, but that he would obey any such order from them.

Late Wednesday, loud explosions were also heard in Najaf in what residents said appeared to be an incursion by American forces there.

In Washington, President Bush, like Americans across the country, reacted to the gruesome videotaped beheading of an American civilian in Iraq, killed by Islamic militants, in retaliation they said, for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American soldiers. ?There is no justification for the brutal execution of Nicholas Berg,? he said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was back on Capitol Hill facing another day of questions about the investigation into the chain of events that led American prison guards to take pictures of naked Iraqis forced to simulate sex acts. ?Shocked and stunned and disgusted and we know in our hearts we are better than that yet that is what is being seen in the world as representing our country,? he said.

After looking at some of the photos and videos that the Pentagon has not made public, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson said the images raise questions about how far up the military chain of command responsibility for the abuse actually goes.

?There are obvious examples in videos of inhumane treatment,? he added. ?And in one particular still photo among troops that are in a hallway where you have seen the clump of people tied together on the floor, we counted seven or eight troops. Now you can't tell me that all of this was going on with seven or eight Army privates.? The issue is now the focus of several investigations. The U.S. military says two more low ranking American soldiers are now among the seven others facing a criminal court martial in connection with the abuse.