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Anniversary fireworks

National | IRAQ: The White House stands by its June 30 plan to hand over sovereignty to Iraqis. But on the first anniversary of Saddam's ouster, U.S. and coalition forces have their hands full

Issue: "Ugly truth of partial-birth," April 17, 2004

Perhaps no one really expected fireworks for the anniversary of Saddam Hussein's fall, but a firefight was the last thing anyone would have hoped for.

One year after American troops entered Baghdad, the city-and much of the country-was convulsed by violence against the soldiers once hailed as liberators. From the capital's vast slums, through the always-dangerous Sunni Triangle and south into the Shiite region, Iraq seemed to explode in anti-American fervor. Dozens of U.S. troops died in fighting more intense than anything seen since the early days of the invasion itself, and military planners faced the specter of a united Muslim struggle against the occupation.

The Pentagon had long feared that Sunnis loyal to Saddam would mark the anniversary of his fall with increased violence. What no one seemed to foresee was the rise of Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical young Shiite cleric with a literal army of impassioned followers. On April 2, after American forces shut down a pro-Sadr newspaper and arrested a top aide suspected in the murder of a rival cleric, Mr. Sadr unleashed his rage. He urged his black-clad followers, known as the al-Mahdi Army, into the streets of Baghdad and four other cities. &quotStrike terror in the heart of your enemy.... We can no longer be silent in the face of their abuses," he said.

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The rebels quickly-though briefly-gained control of Mr. Sadr's hometown of Kufa, taking over the police station and other government buildings. Farther south in Najaf, 5,000 protesters turned violent, besieging a Spanish garrison and killing two soldiers, one American, and one Salvadoran. Italian troops in Nasiriyah and British troops in Amarah also came under fire.

In Baghdad, where Shiites have largely viewed the Americans as liberators, the impoverished residents of the eastern slums turned viciously against their former heroes. The narrow, garbage-strewn alleyways became a deadly maze as rebels fired from rooftops and windows at soldiers sent to recapture five police stations taken over by the al-Mahdi Army. Seven Americans died in the firefight.

Even as coalition troops battled their unexpected new enemy in the south, fierce fighting continued against Sunni loyalists to the north and west. In Fallujah, where four Americans were brutally murdered and mutilated on April 1, U.S. Marines sealed off the city and conducted raids against guerrilla strongholds. Four Americans were reported killed. In nearby Ramadi, 12 Marines died in a seven-hour firefight on April 7, marking one of the deadliest confrontations of the entire Iraqi conflict.

After three days of fighting that claimed 32 American lives plus a Ukrainian, a Salvadoran, and two Poles, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the Pentagon might have to send more troops if the uprising continued to spread. &quotThey will decide what they need, and they will get what they need," Mr. Rumsfeld vowed, even as the U.S. Central Command in Doha ordered field staffs to assess their troop strength in light of the sudden flare-up in southern Iraq.

For the Pentagon, the biggest fear is an ecumenical Muslim front uniting Shiites and Sunnis. The two sects have battled for centuries in Iraq, but there are now signs of an uneasy alignment against a common enemy. On April 5, followers of Mr. Sadr joined with Sunni residents of northern Baghdad in a noisy demonstration that culminated with shots being fired at American troops. And in Ramadi, one of the most fervently Sunni cities in all of Iraq, anti-American demonstrators marched through the streets carrying posters of the radical Shiite cleric.

Most analysts believe Mr. Sadr's support is deep rather than broad, but he has thus far gone unchallenged by the country's more senior, more moderate clerics. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered and authoritative leader of the Shiite community, has yet to countermand his younger rival, perhaps fearing to appear too cozy with the Americans. In the absence of a directive from their cleric, Mr. Sistani's followers have been seen rallying with those of Mr. Sadr, though the two men themselves are not on speaking terms.

Despite the surge in violence, President Bush reiterated his commitment to turn over political power in Baghdad by June 30, even as new polls showed public support for his handling of postwar Iraq plunging to just 40 percent.

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