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US forces hit cleric's militia in Karbala

Four held in Berg case; American killed in ambush

KARBALA, Iraq -- American AC-130 gunships and tanks battled militiamen near shrines in this Shi'ite holy city yesterday, and fighting was heavy in two other towns south of Baghdad. More than 450 Iraqis were released from Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad -- some emerging with fresh assertions of abuse.

Four people were detained in Baghdad in the killing of Nicholas Berg, the 26-year-old American whose videotaped decapitation was shown on an Al Qaeda-linked website, said Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, the chief US military spokesman in Iraq. Two of them were released after questioning, he said.

The military said today that a US soldier was killed and three others were wounded in an attack south of Baghdad. The military said the soldiers' vehicle was "ambushed by a vehicle-born improvised explosive device" in Mahmoudiyah. The statement did not say when the attack occurred.

Two of the injured soldiers were evacuated to a combat hospital. The third returned to duty after treatment. All the casualties were from the US Army's First Armored Division.

The name of the slain soldier was withheld pending notification of next of kin.

In Karbala, the US military said yesterday it killed 18 fighters loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who launched an uprising against the US-led coalition in early April and is wanted in the murder of a rival moderate cleric last year. Hospital officials reported 12 deaths, including two Iranian pilgrims. A driver for the Arab television network Al-Jazeera was also killed.

Much of the fighting was near the city's Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines, which US forces say are being used by militiamen as firing positions or protective cover.

At least six people were killed and 56 were injured in fighting in Najaf and neighboring Kufa, where Sadr delivered a defiant sermon to 15,000 worshipers in which he urged his supporters to resist the coalition. At a checkpoint in Kufa, American forces shot at a car carrying a close aide of Sadr, Mohammed al-Tabtabaei, injuring him and killing his driver, Sadr's office in Najaf said. Tabtabaei was taken into custody.

Meanwhile, the US military said 454 prisoners were released yesterday from the Abu Ghraib prison on the western outskirts of Baghdad. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people are still believed held at the prison. The military is still sending detainees considered security risks to Abu Ghraib.

A convoy of at least six buses, accompanied by US troops in armored vehicles and jeeps, took detainees to several areas, including Tikrit and Baqubah, north of the capital. Some of those who were freed yesterday told of beatings and psychological abuse. They kissed the ground and kneeled to pray after walking out of the police compound in Baqubah.

Abdul Salam Hussain Jassim, 18, said he was held for three months after an explosion.

"Don't even talk about torture. They destroyed me," Jassim said. He said a family of five brothers and sisters was detained in the same block and that one of the men was beaten so badly he died two days later.

The Pentagon has begun criminal investigations of at least 37 deaths involving detainees held by US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said yesterday. There are 33 cases involved, the officials said, eight more than the military reported two weeks ago. Another freed prisoner from Abu Ghraib, Maher Saeed, said he was tied to a car and dragged through the sand for several hundred yards.

A man who identified himself as Ghazwan said he was held with his brother and father for nine months. He spent six in isolation.

"They were psychologically torturing us, especially in the heavy quarantines; they were abusing us inside these quarantines by beating us and forcing us to take off all our clothes," he said. "They were forcing detained women to distribute food to us while we were naked."

The military periodically frees prisoners from Abu Ghraib, which was the site of executions and torture during Saddam Hussein's regime.

The release came as new photographs and shots from a video of alleged abuse and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners were published in The Washington Post. The newspaper reported that some prisoners at Abu Ghraib were ridden like animals, fondled by female soldiers, forced to curse their religion, and required to retrieve their food from toilets.

The first American accused in the scandal, Specialist Jeremy C. Sivits, was sentenced Wednesday to a year in prison for sexually humiliating detainees and taking a photo of prisoners stacked naked in a human pyramid.

Kimmitt said coalition forces on Wednesday captured four people suspected of involvement in Berg's killing and were questioning the two still in custody. "I don't know their prior affiliations or prior organizations," he said.

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