One year after the fall of Saddam Hussein, U.S. forces in Iraq spent Friday battling, not against Iraqi troops, but against Shiite and Sunni militias challenging the U.S.-led occupation. Coalition forces are fighting to restore order in Iraqi towns where Shiite fighters are obeying a call by a rebel cleric to drive occupation forces out of the country.
Coalition soldiers in Baghdad Friday tore down pictures of rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr from the same city square where on April 9th a year ago, troops toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein to the cheers of liberated Iraqis.
But a year later, U.S. forces are still fighting, this time against a rebellion by anti-coalition Shiite and Sunni fighters. As these Shiites were demonstrating in Baghdad, U.S. Army General Mark Kimmitt said American troops were already headed south, on a mission to retake cities where Shiite militiamen had taken over.
General Kimmit said, "I would ask those who want to attack the coalition, or attack Iraqi government facilities, or attack Iraqi police stations in any number to take a very close look at how quickly we are able to reposition a coalition force."
U.S. operations to restore order to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala have been put on hold in order not to interfere with the influx of Shiites expected to flock to those cities in the coming days to take part in the observance of Arbaeen, which commemorates the martyrdom of a Shiite religious leader.
"And we would expect that those special cities that are currently observing the Arbaeen festivities will continue to have some measure of Sadr control inside of them," General Kimmit added.
With the fighting continuing, there were more American casualties Friday. Gunmen attacked a U.S. fuel supply convoy west of Baghdad, killing at least one American soldier and an Iraqi driver. Another American was reported killed in a roadside bomb.
The heaviest casualties have come from five days of battles between American Marines and Sunni fighters in the towns of Fallujah and Ramadi. The U.S. military called a temporary truce in Fallujah Friday to allow for humanitarian supplies to reach civilians and, according to General Kimmitt: "To give a political track an opportunity to attempt to reduce the violence."
Reports say as many as several hundred Iraqis have been killed in the Fallujah battles, triggered by last week's brutal killings there of four American civilian contractors. The Marine assault has so angered some members of the U.S. installed Iraqi Governing Council that several of them have either suspended their participation or are threatening to quit the council.