By Gaiutra Bahadur
BAGHDAD – Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the militant Shiite Muslim cleric responsible for two uprisings against the United States last year, clashed with Iraqi security forces in the southern city of Kufa on Friday, on a day of widespread violence in Iraq.
A mass grave was found at a dump near the Shiite slum that’s al-Sadr’s stronghold in the capital, and two suicide car bombs struck a market and a police checkpoint, killing at least 23.
Friday’s violence underscored the weakness of the new Iraqi government in the face of widespread challenges to its authority.
The clash in Kufa came after a defiant speech by al-Sadr that was read at Friday prayers, and it brought reminders of the chaos al-Sadr’s supporters caused last year when they revolted against U.S. troops in Najaf and elsewhere. The sermon said the Iraqi government had done nothing to win the release of al-Sadr’s followers in U.S. facilities or to stop raids on his offices and warned that he might again mobilize his Mahdi Army militia.
“We dropped our weapons, but our hands are still on the trigger,” al-Sadr said. “We have been patient and quiet with the truce, which (the U.S.) violated more than once. Consider the past period a training period for us, psychologically and morally.”
Accounts of what caused the clash in Kufa varied, but there was agreement that Iraqi police or army officials shot and wounded some worshippers emerging from prayers.
“After the prayers, the worshippers left the mosque and they started to chant,” said Sabah Shubar, 41, a car mechanic who was hit in the leg by three bullets. “We were surprised by the army opening fire.”
A spokesman for the Defense Ministry said that guards for Aws al Khafaji, the imam who delivered al-Sadr’s speech, were armed. Police questioned them, which led to a dispute that ended with an exchange of gunfire, the spokesman said.
The clash left at least four wounded, including a 13-year-old and a police officer, and created tension in al-Sadr’s strongholds across the country.
Meanwhile, a mass grave was discovered northeast of Baghdad, near Sadr City.
Police said early Friday that they recovered the bodies of 14 men who were buried in a garbage dump. Each victim had been blindfolded, handcuffed and shot once in the head.
The Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni clerical group with ties to the insurgency, claimed that the victims were all farmers, members of the prominent Dulaimi clan, who’d been abducted from a grocer’s market the day before by Iraqi army and police officers.
The association issued a statement naming all the victims. The men, brothers and cousins, all between the ages of 25 and 40, had traveled to the Baghdad market to sell their goods, said Abdul Salaam al-Qubaisi, a spokesman for the association. They came from Madain, a town south of Baghdad that last month was the focus of reputed kidnappings that pitted Sunnis against Shiites.
The discovery of the mass grave raised further fears that bloody ethnic clashes are escalating.
On a bridge in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, a car bomb killed seven and wounded three near a police checkpoint at 8:10 a.m., the Iraqi Interior Ministry said.
In Suwayrah, about 25 miles south of Baghdad in an area known as “The Triangle of Death,” a car bomb exploded in a market, killing 16 and wounding 36, according to the ministry.
Also, Friday, the Arab satellite news station Al-Jazeera broadcast two videos of kidnapping victims that issued ultimatums for their countries to either withdraw troops or stop doing business in Iraq.
In one video, men wearing masks brandished rifles at Australian engineer Douglas Wood, 63, pictured with his head shaved and displaying his passport. Al-Jazeera reported that kidnappers had given Australia 72 hours to withdraw its 300 troops from Iraq. A banner visible to the left of the video read al-Mujahedeen Shura Council.
Another video showed six employees of a Jordanian company called Jaafar Ibn Mansour being held by a group called al-Baraa bin Malik. Two men pointed AK-47s at the employees, also pictured holding their passports. Al-Jazeera said the kidnappers were demanding that all Jordanian companies cease doing business in Iraq.
In the face of the increasingly grisly news, the U.S. military claimed significant progress in breaking the organization of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq.
It released a statement Friday that highlighted the killing and capture of 20 top lieutenants in al-Zarqawi’s network in recent months and included excerpts of demoralized testimonies from several detained bomb makers, drivers, propagandists and terror cell leaders.
The statement also described the near capture of al-Zarqawi in a Feb. 20 raid between Hit and Haditha, near the Euphrates River.
Al-Zarqawi’s driver, Abu Usama, recounted that “Zarqawi became hysterical” as coalition forces closed in on his vehicle, according to the statement. The statement said al-Zarqawi grabbed an American-made rifle and U.S. dollars and escaped, leaving behind his computer, pistols and ammunition.
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