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."
The clash in the Iraqi capital was one of several incidents Sunday that had potentially far-reaching political ramifications. Also in Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed an Interior Ministry detention facility and found 17 foreign prisoners. News services reported that as many as 40 police officers were detained in the operation, which came after pledges by U.S. commanders to crack down on abuse of detainees following recent disclosures of torture in at least two Iraqi-run prisons.
The aide to Jafari said that no evidence of torture was found and that the prisoners included Sudanese, Egyptians and other Arab nationals, all of whom were awaiting deportation because they lacked proper identification. A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, said he had "no releasable information" on the incident.
Elsewhere in Iraq, army and medical officials in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, said 30 headless bodies were discovered at 6:30 p.m. in a deserted brush area in Tarfiya, a village outside Baqubah, 35 miles from the capital.
Tariq Shallal Hiyali, deputy director of the provincial health department, said all of the bodies were male.
In an unrelated case also in Diyala province, a source in the Iraqi Interior Ministry said Sunday that a security officer had been arrested about three days earlier and charged with heading a criminal gang whose members dressed as security officers to kidnap and kill people. The official, who would not be quoted by name, identified the arrested man as Arkan Mohammed al-Bawi, 32. He said Bawi had confessed during interrogation that his gang members wore police uniforms stolen during attacks on police checkpoints and that they had killed "many people."
The Reuters news service reported that Bawi was a police major and that his brother is the chief of police in Diyala province.
Iraq has been plagued by incidents in which gunmen dressed as security officers have abducted and killed civilians. Sunni politicians have charged that the groups are targeting Sunni Arabs and are being harbored by the Shiite-led Interior Ministry, an allegation denied by the Iraqi government.
Also on Sunday, at least 10 more bodies were found in three places in the capital, an official in the Baghdad police operations room said on condition of anonymity. Five had their hands bound and had been shot in the head, and five showed signs of torture and had been shot in the chest and stomach, he said. All were unidentified men between the ages of 20 and 40, he said.
Meanwhile, in an incident apparently unrelated to the clashes involving his followers in Baghdad, Sadr escaped injury when two mortar shells struck near his Najaf home while he was inside.
Mustafa Yacoubi, a top aide to Sadr in Najaf, said the shells appeared to have been fired at close range from another house in the neighborhood, an area in northeastern Najaf that is controlled by Sadr's Mahdi Army. Angry followers of the young cleric surrounded Sadr's home after the attack.
The cleric, who is believed to be in his thirties, issued a statement calling for calm among his followers, who have been accused of deadly retaliatory attacks on Sunnis following other provocations, which Sadr often blames on the West.
"I call upon my brothers not to be dragged into the West's plots," he said in the statement. "Everybody should stay calm."
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Saad al-Izzy in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Hassan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.