Iraqi Soldiers Clash With Shiite Militiamen in Baghdad

By Jonathan Finer and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 7, 2006; 9:38 AM

BAGHDAD, July 7 -- Iraqi soldiers clashed Friday morning with Shiite militiamen in the eastern Baghdad slum of Sadr City, killing or capturing 30 to 40 fighters in one engagement, according to a statement from the U.S. military.

While the statement did not name the militia involved, that area of Baghdad is controlled by the Mahdi Army -- a force loyal to firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. One of those taken prisoner was a "high-level" leader of "multiple insurgent cells" responsible for kidnappings and killings, including the deaths of two Iraqi soldiers, the statement said.

The militia fighter captured by Iraqi forces, who was not named, is also linked to a committee carrying out vigilante justice against political enemies, the military's statement said. He is also accused of importing weapons from Syria to Iraq.

A 43-minute firefight ensued when an Iraqi unit was shot at while traveling through the area, the statement said. Militiamen reportedly attacked with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades from the rooftops of a building where the senior leader was later detained.

Mahdi Army fighters, who confirmed their involvement, said they were the ones who were attacked, without provocation.

A Sadr spokesman in Baghdad, Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, called the fighting "a dangerous escalation and criminal act on the part of the American forces." U.S. troops often accompany and provide air support for Iraqi units, although the military statement only described the involvement of Iraqi soldiers.

Dealing with the Mahdi Army, one of the Iraq's largest and most politically powerful Shiite armed groups, has long proved a thorny challenge for U.S. and Iraqi forces, who waged pitched battles against the militiamen throughout 2004. While U.S. officials have blamed the group for contributing to the surge in sectarian violence here in recent months, politicians loyal to Sadr control more than 30 seats in Iraq's parliament and several cabinet posts, making the militia a politically sensitive target.

Mahdi Army fighters, who said they participated in the skirmish, which the U.S. said lasted 43-minutes, gathered in Najaf to bury their dead in a vast cemetery holy to Shiites.

"It was shortly after 2 a.m. when we heard the sound of shootings, bombings and helicopters," said Jasim Muhammed, 36, a Mahdi Army fighter who said his cousin died in the clash. "We were all sleeping on the roofs of our houses because there was no electricity. We went out to the street to see what happened and we were shocked to see the American helicopters bombing and shooting at the houses. The Americans were in Humvees and tanks with Iraqi forces accompanying them."

Qais Shawkat, 56, who said he is a neighborhood Mahdi Army commander in Sadr City, said U.S. and Iraqi forces attacked a funeral tent for a militiamen who died recently, killing one man and wounding several others. He said the Mahdi Army was under orders not to fight U.S. forces.

"We have orders from Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr not to fight the Americans now," he said. "So, we didn't. We were surprised. We did not expect the Americans to come and attack us." Sadr aide Sahib al-Amery said the attack came too quickly for the Mahdi Army to respond. "Just a few members of the army took up arms and fought individually, not according to an organized plan or battle," he said, adding that at least ten militiamen had been killed.

Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondent Saad al-Izzy in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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