Sudden Quiet in Karbala Is Puzzling to U.S. Forces
U.S. officials announced that one U.S. soldier and two Iraqis were killed by a roadside bomb Thursday evening in Baghdad.
Shiite rivals of Sadr have called on him to give up, but he has defied them, too. After Friday prayers in Karbala, demonstrators marched for peace on an esplanade between the shrines of Abbas and Hussein, the two chief religious monuments in the city. A representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the chief Shiite religious leader, urged all armed groups to leave the city.
U.S. officials said they still hope that tribal and religious leaders can persuade Sadr to surrender. "The point we make to them is that they should support our actions against Sadr or they will all have to face the consequences of dealing with an outlaw later," Col. Peter Mansoor, the brigade commander in Karbala, said in an interview Thursday.
Mansoor said that Shiite opponents of Sadr do not want to take the fight to Sadr. "They fear civil war. They would rather have Americans do it," he said.
Foreign fighters and Iraqis from outside the city have reinforced Sadr's militia in Karbala, Mansoor said. The newcomers were more skillful combatants than the locals, he said: "They shoot better."
Mansoor added that Sadr's forces have displayed "surprising" willingness to take large numbers of casualties but that U.S. tactics will remain the same: to kill as many of his guerrillas as possible and isolate Sadr in Najaf. Karbala is supposed to exemplify the costs for Sadr. More than 100 Mahdi Army fighters have died in fighting here, according to U.S. officials.
Yet for the moment in Karbala, it is Americans who move with caution. Commanders have been told that they must avoid damaging the shrines of Abbas and Hussein. Officials explained the pullout from the mosque as a step toward turning downtown Karbala over to Iraqi security forces, although such a step was supposed to come after Sadr's forces were ousted from the city.
On Friday, Polish and Bulgarian troops visited the mosque to check for damage and weapons. Late Friday into Saturday, Company C rattled in Bradley Fighting Vehicles through central Karbala. They rolled by the walls of the twin shrines, moved past the apparently empty mosque and then westward, all without attracting a single rifle shot.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company