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U.S. soldiers, militia exchange fire in south Iraq

Fighters from the Shi'ite Mehdi Army and U.S. soldiers exchanged rocket and mortar fire on Thursday, threatening a ceasefire declared by the militia's leader, the anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al Sadr.

A demonstrator chants slogans as he holds an image of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr during a protest in Baghdad's Sadr City in this February 22, 2008 file photo. Fighters from the Shi'ite Mehdi Army and U.S. soldiers exchanged rocket and mortar fire on Thursday, threatening a ceasefire declared by the militia's leader, Sadr. (REUTERS/Kareem Raheem)

Sadr, whose militia fought two battles against U.S. forces in southern Iraq in 2004, extended a ceasefire last month, but at the weekend issued a statement telling followers they could defend themselves if attacked.

The ceasefire has been praised by U.S. commanders for reducing violence, with attacks across Iraq down by 60 percent since last June. But U.S. forces are stretched thin by an increase in attacks in Baghdad and northern Iraq since January.

There were no reports of clashes involving Mehdi Army fighters elsewhere in Iraq, suggesting the Kut exchanges were isolated to that city.

An Iraqi police official, who asked not to be identified, said as many as 11 Katyusha rockets landed on the U.S. base near Kut, 170 km southeast of Baghdad late on Wednesday.

Police described the attackers as gunmen but residents said they were Mehdi Army fighters.

Two Iraqi men, who police and witnesses said were brothers, were killed and four others, including a 6-year-old girl, were wounded when U.S. soldiers fired mortar rounds after the rocket attack, the police official said.

A U.S. military spokeswoman said the Americans responded after four rockets were fired at the base. She had no information about civilian casualties but said no U.S. soldiers were hurt in the exchange.

Iraqi police said the rockets were fired from Kut's Shuhada district, one of four Mehdi Army strongholds raided by Iraqi police on Wednesday, a day after Sadr's militia clashed with security forces.

A Reuters witness saw police checkpoints set up at intersections around Shuhada on Thursday but there was no sign of gunmen or clashes.

Luwaa Sumaisem, a senior Sadrist member in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, said the clashes began on Tuesday after a disagreement between Iraqi security forces and a group of mourners, some of whom were Mehdi Army members.

"This dispute developed into clashes. We call on all the parties to calm down and keep the situation in Kut stable," Sumaisem told Reuters by telephone.


There had been no major violations of the ceasefire until fighting erupted on Tuesday.

Hussein al-Quraishi, a Kut police lieutenant who identified himself as the uncle of the two brothers who were killed, said he saw two men in a pick-up truck and two on motorcycles launch six rockets from a field near his house towards the U.S. base.

He said mortar rounds landed on four houses about 30 minutes later, his brother's house collapsing.

"If the gunmen want to fight, there is the American base, let them go there and fight," Quraishi said as he wiped tears from his eyes with his shirt sleeves. "What is our fault? Our children are horrified. My brother's sons were killed."

Newly married Hussein Kareem said he, his wife and parents rushed from their house after the first explosions. He said a mortar round later crashed through his bedroom roof.

"How can I rebuild my house? Who will compensate me? The government or the gunmen?" Kareem said.

Kut's police chief said on Wednesday 11 people were killed in Tuesday's gun battles, in which U.S. special forces called in air strikes after Iraqi authorities asked for help.

In Diyala province north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said soldiers accidentally shot dead a young girl.

The killing of Iraqi civilians has long put a strain on relations between Baghdad and Washington, who this week began talks on future relations and the presence of U.S. troops after the current U.N. mandate expires at the end of this year.

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