U.S. Attacks Shiite Militia in Karbala
Military Releases 454 Detainees and Two Suspects in American's Death
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2004; 4:10 PM
U.S. forces backed by tanks and aircraft pounded positions of a Shiite Muslim militia in the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala early today, killing at least 18 fighters who had been using holy sites as cover, the U.S. military said.
In Baghdad, the military announced the arrest of four persons in connection with the brutal murder of an American civilian, Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded by masked captors in a video that was posted on the Internet. Two of the four were subsequently released, and the other two were being questioned to determine whether they had any knowledge of the murder or involvement in it.
The military also announced the release of 454 detainees from Abu Ghraib prison, the scene of abuses by U.S. military guards, and said nearly 400 others are scheduled to be freed at the end of the month.
Later, the U.S-appointed Iraqi Governing Council condemned a raid on the home and offices of Ahmed Chalabi, a council member and longtime U.S. ally, by Iraqi police with support from U.S. troops and civilian advisers. The council said it would demand an explanation of Thursday's raid from the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq.
In Washington, the nation's top general defended the military's intelligence relationship with Chalabi's organization, which has received millions of dollars in U.S. funding over the years, including monthly payments of $335,000 to its intelligence arm that were recently halted.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a House Armed Services Committee hearing that U.S. military intelligence in Iraq appreciated the information it had received from Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.
"That intelligence was accurate and useful in many cases," Myers said in response to questioning from skeptical Democratic congressmen. Asked by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) about allegations that Chalabi may have been an agent for Iran and "may have deliberately misled our nation for years," Myers said he knew only that Chalabi's organization "has provided intelligence . . . that saved soldiers' lives."
Asked "what changed" in the U.S. relationship with Chalabi, who had been known as the Pentagon's man in the Iraqi opposition to former president Saddam Hussein, Myers said, "I can't answer that."
In response to questioning from Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) -- who asked, regarding Chalabi, "Have we been duped by a con man?" -- Myers said, "I don't have the information that would allow me to make that judgment." He added, "People in the Iraqi National Congress have provided very good intelligence to our forces in Iraq that have prevented our forces from dying." He said he would be prepared to talk about Chalabi's relationship with Iran in a closed session.
At a press briefing in Baghdad, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said U.S. soldiers were involved in the raid on Chalabi's offices only to provide an "outer cordon" to maintain security for the Iraqi police and to prevent any "collateral violence."
Daniel Senor, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, denied that any plainclothes personnel from the CIA, FBI or Defense Intelligence Agency participated in the raid. He said private American contractors who work for the Iraqi Interior Ministry were present "to observe and advise the Iraqi police during this operation, as they do on numerous operations." He said an American woman who identified herself as an employee of the Iraqi National Congress was also on the scene.
The American contractors, Senor said, "were not there at the direction of the coalition."
Kimmitt said U.S. forces in Karbala, burial place of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, came under heavy fire from rebel militiamen as the American soldiers were covering a withdrawal from the Mukhayam mosque in the center of Karbala. Kimmitt said the militiamen fired rocket-propelled grenades from a building directly across the street from the city's main holy shrine.
The U.S. soldiers called in an AC-130 gunship to direct precise fire against the militia position to avoid "any collateral damage on the holy shrines," Kimmitt said. He said the AC-130 was used again in a "sustained engagement" in the northern part of the city, where militiamen directed "multiple RPG attacks" against U.S. troops in the afternoon.
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