Sunday April 4, 4:25 AM
US tanks deploy in Baghdad as Shiite radicals take to streets
US tanks deployed in the Iraqi capital to stop hundreds of angry protestors marching on the coalition's city-centre headquarters as Shiite Muslim radicals took to the streets across central and southern Iraq.
The protest in the capital turned violent as some supporters of radical leader Moqtada Sadr threw themselves at the US tanks and a police officer said at least two of the demonstrators had been crushed.
There was no immediate confirmation of the deaths from police headquarters or the US military.
Huge protests were also held in the central pilgrimage city of Najaf and as far south as Amara, while unarmed militiamen from Sadr's Mehdi Army paraded in Sadr City, a sprawling mainly Shiite neighbourhood of the capital regarded as a radical stronghold.
Sadr's followers have held almost daily demonstrations to protest the decision by the coalition last Sunday to close his weekly newspaper for 60 days on charges of inciting violence.
Early Saturday, Sadr supporters took to the streets of Najaf, reacting to unfounded rumours that Spanish coalition soldiers had detained Mustafa Yaacubi, the head of his office in the city.
Spanish commanders "categorically" denied the charge in a statement that was distributed to the crowd that formed outside the headquarters of the Spanish-led Plus Ultra Brigade in Najaf until mid-evening.
The protestors dismissed the denial, demanding the release of Yaacubi and calling for another sit-in to take place Sunday morning.
Rumours of Yaacubi's arrest also spread to the southern city of Amara where thousands of protestors took to the streets to vent their anger, an AFP correspondent said.
Sheikh Qais al-Khazaali, the head of Sadr's office in Baghdad, warned that his movement would react if Yaacubi was not quickly released.
"This is a new provocation by the coalition forces," Sheikh Khazaali told AFP. "If he is not quickly released, our movement, our leadership and our supporters will react with the means at our disposal."
Another rumour that coalition forces were surrounding Sadr's office in Najaf spread in the afternoon, prompting hundreds of his followers to head to the coalition's Baghdad headquarters in buses and cars, correspondents said.
Their advance was stopped by police units and at least half a dozen US tanks which cordoned off streets leading to the heavily fortified administrative compound.
An AFP correspondent saw one young man lunging at a tank which stopped abruptly without harming him. The crowd cheered the young man and then protestors upturned carts to block the road.
"There were two or three dead among the protestors who threw themselves under American tanks which could not avoid them," said Sergeant Abbas Mohamad.
In similar clashes Friday evening, three Salvadoran soldiers were shot and wounded as they tried to disarm what the San Salvador press described as pro-Sadr militiamen in Kufa, just outside Najaf.
Major Carlos Herradon, spokesman for the Plus Ultra Brigade, said the shooting erupted when the troops tried to disarm the militiamen in the shrine city, a Sadr stronghold, and a group of them opened fire.
He added that one of the soldiers remained in hospital Saturday.
Unlike the mainstream Shiite religious parties -- the Dawa and the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- Sadr has refused to take part in coalition-installed interim bodies and has had often troubled relations with coalition troops.
But the weekend's demonstrations marked a sharp escalation of the radical leader's campaign of opposition to the US-led occupation.
The violence came as UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was due to return to Baghdad within two days to discuss the coalition's plans to transfer power to a caretaker government by June 30 and hold elections by the end of January.