16 Sadr Loyalists Killed in Assault

Men and boys clear debris in Baghdad after a blast outside their house killed a woman and wounded two of her sisters, as well as a man who lived next door.
Men and boys clear debris in Baghdad after a blast outside their house killed a woman and wounded two of her sisters, as well as a man who lived next door. (By Karim Kadim -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Finer and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 27, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 26 -- U.S. and Iraqi special forces killed at least 16 followers of the Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Sunday in a twilight assault on what the U.S. military said was a "terrorist cell" responsible for attacks on soldiers and civilians.

Also Sunday, Iraqi forces found 30 headless bodies in an area north of the capital. A health official said the killings appeared to have taken place earlier in the day.

No U.S. or Iraqi service members were killed in the clash with Sadr's supporters, which occurred in the predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Adhamiyah, in northern Baghdad, according to a U.S. military statement. One Iraqi soldier was wounded, and 15 people were detained. An unidentified hostage was found at the site, the statement said, along with materials used to fashion homemade bombs.

Aides to Sadr, who is backed by one of the country's largest and most feared militias, said those killed were innocents praying in the al-Moustafa mosque in the Shaab neighborhood, well north of Adhamiyah, when the assault began at 6 p.m.

The U.S. military said in a statement that "no mosques were entered or damaged during this operation." The military also said U.S. forces came under fire as the raid began and then returned fire. It was impossible to verify where the raid took place because of the nightly government-imposed curfew that began at 8 p.m., hours before news of the incident broke.

The killings further inflamed an already volatile political situation as Iraqi leaders struggle to form a new government in the face of mounting sectarian violence. An outspoken opponent of the U.S. presence in Iraq, Sadr has become a potent political force, fielding more than 30 loyal members in Iraq's new parliament. The incident Sunday was one of the deadliest encounters between his followers and U.S. and Iraqi forces since his Mahdi Army militia waged two violent uprisings in 2004.

"I think we are going to have a firm stance against the American forces because of this crime," Salam al-Maliki, the country's transportation minister and a close Sadr ally, said on al-Iraqiya television. The network aired footage throughout the night of bloody bodies lying on a concrete floor and men wrapping the corpses in blankets by the light of glow sticks and carrying them away.

Maliki blamed the incident on U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has accused the Mahdi Army of carrying out a slew of recent killings in the wake of the bombing last month of a revered Shiite mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

In a statement read by a government spokesman on al-Iraqiya, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari called for calm and said he had discussed the incident with Gen. George W. Casey Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who Jafari said had "promised to investigate."

"We call upon the sons of our people to be aware of what is being plotted against the country," Jafari said. "We hope that they will enjoy patience till the conclusion of the ongoing, immediate investigations."

An aide to Jafari, who was endorsed by Sadr's political wing to retain his job in the next government but is opposed by other Iraqi factions, said the government was not notified about the raid in advance.

"The incident has injured the whole political process," said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to the deliberations about the composition of the next government that have deadlocked since elections in December. "Some leaders will be dismayed of this situation and hesitate to participate knowing that such an incident took place and how the government was not aware. We need to sort of calm down the situation now."

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