Amid Strife, Iraq Locks Down Capital

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 24, 2006

BAGHDAD, June 23 -- Violence flared in the capital and beyond Friday despite a security crackdown now in its second week, causing the government to clear Baghdad's restive streets for three afternoon hours in an attempt to rein in the clashes.

The restrictive measure followed morning firefights -- involving a Shiite Muslim militia, Sunni Muslim insurgents, and U.S. and Iraqi security forces -- in the Haifa Street neighborhood, a Sunni enclave that abuts the fortified Green Zone.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, reported the deaths of five service members in recent days. Two soldiers were killed Friday morning in a roadside bomb attack on their vehicle southeast of Baghdad. Two Marines were killed in insurgent attacks in the western province of Anbar, one Wednesday and one Thursday. And a soldier in the Baghdad area died Wednesday in a "non-combat-related incident" that is under investigation, the military said. No further details were provided.

According to another news release, the military killed four foreign fighters, one wearing a suicide belt and the other an explosive vest, in a raid north of the western city of Fallujah on Friday morning.

The fighting on Haifa Street began at mid-morning, when followers of the firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gathered to walk to the Buratha mosque, a revered place of worship that has been attacked several times in recent months. Protected by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, they were nonetheless fired upon by Sunni insurgents near Haifa Street, and Sadr's group returned fire, police and witnesses said.

Iraqi police officers and soldiers, backed by U.S. troops, were dispatched to quell the fray. But witnesses said some Mahdi Army fighters -- widely blamed by American officials for unrest in Baghdad and southern Iraq -- shot at police checkpoints, sparking another firefight. Mahdi Army members later set up checkpoints of their own on roads leading toward the mosque.

"Some violations took place between the Iraqi army and the Mahdi Army because of a misunderstanding," said Sadr spokesman Abdul Hadi al-Darraji. "But it was solved. We were calm and cautious."

At least three insurgents were killed and six wounded, along with three civilians who suffered serious injuries, according to Ahmed al-Nuaimi, an Interior Ministry official. News services reported that at least six Iraqi security personnel were wounded as well. U.S. forces announced no casualties.

"We had some soldiers who were sent there to investigate gunfire, and they ended up killing two anti-Iraqi forces in the process," said Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad, using the military's term for insurgents. "It was a confusing situation, and we don't know all the facts yet."

Elsewhere in Baghdad, Friday's lockdown, which applied to pedestrians and vehicle traffic, added a new layer of confusion for residents already coping with stepped-up checkpoints and security raids. It began at 2 p.m. and was announced just hours earlier, after many people had already left for work or to attend Friday prayers at mosques. The government initially said the curfew would remain in place overnight, which would have prevented many people from going home. It was lifted at 5 p.m.

Residents in the commercial neighborhood of Karrada -- virtually vacant in the early afternoon -- said they thought that the curfew was intended to improve security, but they were frustrated with the disruption and the lack of warning.

"Aren't they supposed to give us a day's notice? How are people who went to work or to pray supposed to get home?" said Muhammed Saleh, 28, a taxi driver. "This is a decision by someone who is not wise, not reasonable."

Nearby, a barber who lives in the southern neighborhood of Dora shuttered his shop quickly and set off for home on foot. Iraqis who work in the Green Zone streamed out just after noon in an attempt to make it home before the lockdown took effect.

"My father was killed last week in a bombing, so I want them to have a security plan," said Haider Haleeji, 28, a security guard for a translation company. "But the government needs to do a better job of telling people what is going on."

In the southern city of Basra, where violence has escalated in recent months and where the government recently declared a state of emergency, a car bomb exploded near an intersection, killing three civilians and wounding 13. No target was immediately apparent.

Special correspondent Hasan Shammari in Baqubah contributed to this report.

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