Gunmen Attack Spanish, Salvadoran Troops in Najaf

By Jim Garamone

A Salvadorean soldier runs for cover as his base comes under attack outside Kufa, 15 kms north of Najaf, Iraq, Sunday, April 4,2004. Gunmen opened fire on the Spanish garrison near the holy city of Najaf on Sunday during a huge demonstration by followers of an anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric.

Gervasio Sanchez / AP Photo

April 4, 2004 – Spanish and Salvadoran troops in Najaf came under attack from gunmen hiding in a crowd of protesters, coalition officials said in Baghdad today.

One El Salvadoran soldier was killed, and 12 El Salvadoran soldiers and one U.S. soldier were wounded when a large number of men, many dressed in black, attacked a Coalition base with small-arms fire, said a coalition news release. The wounded were transported to the 31st Combat Support Hospital for treatment.

Coalition forces – including U.S. Air Force aircraft and U.S. Army gunships – responded to the attacks. The situation in Najaf is now stabilized, senior military officials said in a background briefing earlier in the day.

Officials said the attacks began at about 11:45 a.m. Iraq time, when a vehicle leaving an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps base came under small-arms fire. From about noon to 2:30 p.m., the coalition base came under attack from "a large number of personnel."

Coalition authorities said reports that hundreds of civilian casualties resulted from the attacks were incorrect. "Any notion that the Spanish fired on the protesters in the middle of a peaceful demonstration would not be consistent with what we saw on the ground," a senior military official said. Authorities indicated they would have more information as officials in Najaf gather the facts.

The attacks did come as followers of anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al- Sadr marched on the compound reportedly in protest of a Sadr aide detention.

A senior coalition official said the coalition had detained the aide, Mustapha Yacoubi, for the April 2003 murder of Shiite Ayatollah Sayed al Khoei – one of Iraq’s leading advocates for human rights. Coalition forces turned the accused man over to Iraqi officials. Yacoubi will be tried by an Iraqi court.

Also earlier in the day, Coalition Administrator Paul Bremer said that Iraqis have gained their freedoms and have exercised their new rights appropriately all over the country.

"That is welcome," he said. "But those freedoms must be exercised peacefully. This morning a group of people in Najaf crossed the line and they have moved to violence. This will not be tolerated. This will not be tolerated by the coalition, this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi people, and this will not be tolerated by the Iraqi security forces."