In a protest which got violent, coalition soldiers opened fire on a protest by approximately 15,000 supporters of Moqtada al Sadr in Najaf, Iraq's holiest of cities. It is unknown what triggered the clash, though the Guardian claims that soldiers fired on the crowd after stomes were thrown at a military vehicle. Clearly, however, the results were horrific, with at least 20 protesters killed, and over100 wounded (An Australian newspaper is reporting that 210 Iraqis were wounded.) This triggered a minor skirmish at the scene with some of al-Sadr's paramilitaries, that led to the death of a US and a Salvadorian soldier.
The violence then spread to Baghdad, when Sadr's supporters, angry from the bloodbath at the protest, returned to Baghdad from Najaf, gathered their forces, and attempted to seize and hold several police stations and givernment offices in the eastern "Sadr City" region of Baghdad. Sadr's supporters were repulsed, but at least 7 additional US servicemen were killed in these clashes, with more than 24 US servicemen wounded. Two more U.S. soldiers were killed elsewhere in Iraq, for a one-day tally of at least 10 dead. This makes today arguably the costliest day of the occupation so far, rivaling the daily casualty figures for the war itself.
I have no word yet on the number of Sadr supporters or Iraqi policemen who were killed and wounded in the clashes in Baghdad, but it can be assumed there were significant losses on both sides. Al Jazeera reports that occupation forces also fired at journalists at the scene, injuring one of their reporters.
Meanwhile, Britain reports that approximately 1000 of al-Sadr's supporters in Basra have peacefully taken control of the governor's house overnight. It is unknown yet whether a battle might result over this act. Iraqi police are currently negotiating with al-Sadr's supporters.
This fundamentally changes the natire of the war, as the U.S. has, in effect, declared war on Sadr's supporters, and quite possibly other sympathetic elements in the Iraqi Shi'ite community. This could easily make Iraq twice as dangerous as before for Westerners, if not moreso.
It remains to be seen how the violence today will resonate with the Iraqi people. To a large extent, this depends on how the Arab media reports on the matter and what Sistani, Iraq's primary spiritual leader, has to say on the subject.
It has been reported that someone at al-Sadr's office has ordered supporters to cease protest and declare jihad. That said, there is no confirmed report that al-Sadr himself has formally endorsed violence against the U.S. -- only resistance to the occupation. Infact, there are reports that he has ordered a sit-in protest. If the U.S. moves against him, there is no knowing how other Iraqi Shi'ites will respond. Will they feel relieved? Will they feel incensed? Or will they fear that their spiritual leader of choice could be next...?!