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Iraq: Protests, Clashes Continue - 2004-04-05


For the second day, Iraqi demonstrators, many of them disciples of a Shiite cleric, have clashed with U.S. troops in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. At least eight American troops and more than 50 Iraqis have been reported killed in the rioting. But the United States says it remains firmly committed to handing over power on June 30th, despite new questions about Iraq's overall stability.

Violence breaks out again between U.S. troops and followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr during demonstrations in Baghdad Monday. Two days of clashes in the Iraqi capital and other cities follow U.S. decisions to close a Shiite newspaper and the arrest of one of the cleric's senior aides.

A call by the cleric for his militia, known as the al-Mahdi army, to 'terrorize the enemy' has prompted thousands of his disciples to take to the streets, and for the U.S. military to take action in response.

"The action of the al-Mahdi army over the past 48 hours is clearly inconsistent with a safe and secure environment," said U.S. Military spokesman General Mark Kimmitt. "Individuals who create violence, who incite violence, who execute violence against persons inside Iraq will be hunted down and captured or killed."

Top U.S. administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, labeled Moqtada al-Sadr an outlaw.

U.S. military authorities announced an Iraqi judge has issued a warrant for his arrest in connection with last April's murder of cleric Abdel Majid al-Khoei.

General Kimmitt would not speculate on when the arrest warrant might be executed, but he said, "He is free to surrender. He is free to walk into any police station. He is free to have that warrant served upon him. He will be treated with dignity. He will be treated with respect."

Meanwhile, U.S. Marines began to seal off the town of Fallujah, west of the Iraqi capital, in what the U.S. military is warning will be an overwhelming response to last week's murder of four American security contractors.

Despite the Shiite unrest, President Bush attempted to reassure the Iraqi people the United States will not allow the increasing violence to deter coalition plans for rebuilding Iraq, or delay sovereignty being handed back to the Iraqi people on June 30th.

"And that is an important message for them to hear," he said. "If they think that we are not sincere about staying the course, many people will not continue to take the risk toward freedom and democracy."

But some in Washington are beginning to question whether the security situation in Iraq will allow for a June 30 handover. Among them, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who spoke on ABC news.

"Clearly, pragmatically, you have the militias that have not been disarmed, and if, in fact, the worse situation comes the militia begin to fight each other, " Mr. Lugar said.

Despite the Bush administration's assertion that Iraq is just one front in the war on terror, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, one of the administration's most outspoken critics on Iraq, is drawing election-year comparisons between the situation and a war the United States fought a generation ago.

The Senator said, "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam and this country needs a new president."

A new public opinion poll of nearly 800 Americans finds President Bush's handling of the Iraq war has slipped to a new low. Only four out of ten of those asked by the Pew Research Center say they approve of the president's conduct of the war, even though a majority still say they support his reasons for going to war.

More than 600 American troops have been killed in Iraq since the war began 13 months ago. During that time, attacks have been led largely by minority Sunnis. But the violence over the past two days has been carried out primarily by majority Shiites, a group that, until recently, had been considered more supportive of the U.S. occupation, since it was Shiites who were suppressed for decades by Saddam Hussein.