Iraqi Troops Clash With Shiite Militia

Iraqi men display artillery holes in bed mats and blankets from an intense firefight between insurgents and Iraqi and coalition soldiers in Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite slum in Baghdad. The pre-dawn battle lasted 43 minutes.
Iraqi men display artillery holes in bed mats and blankets from an intense firefight between insurgents and Iraqi and coalition soldiers in Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite slum in Baghdad. The pre-dawn battle lasted 43 minutes. (By Karim Kadim -- Associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 8, 2006

BAGHDAD, July 7 -- Iraqi troops rumbled into the teeming Baghdad slum of Sadr City before dawn Friday and confronted the neighborhood's reigning militia, setting off an intense firefight that left 30 to 40 insurgents dead or wounded, according to U.S. military officials.

Using night-vision goggles and laser-guided weapons, the Iraqi army, supported by U.S.-led coalition troops, raided four homes and captured five men. One was a "very significant criminal" who leads "multiple insurgent cells" responsible for kidnappings and killings, including the deaths of two Iraqi soldiers, said Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, a spokesman for the U.S. military.

The U.S. military did not name the opposing force in the clash, but Sadr City is controlled by the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite Muslim militia loyal to firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The cleric's formidable political influence makes his militia a sensitive target, and attacks against it have led to popular uprisings.

The fighting, which lasted 43 minutes, began when Iraqi troops returned fire after being shot at with rocket-propelled grenades, Caldwell said. Under the cover of U.S. military aircraft, Iraqi troops blew off the doors of four houses during the raid, while taking grenade and small-arms fire from rooftops, U.S. officials said.

The U.S. military did not identify the "significant" individual who was captured, but Caldwell said he was involved in a "punishment committee that carries out vigilante judgment." He also is said to have imported weapons from Syria into Iraq.

One of the most notorious members of the Mahdi Army, suspected of being behind several killings, is a man known as Abu Dura. But "there is no confirmation that Abu Dura was captured" in the raid, said Maj. James F. Lowe, a U.S. Army spokesman.

Mahdi Army members, who confirmed their involvement in the fight, said they 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."

In a separate operation, U.S.-led forces captured an insurgent commander in Babil province, whom news services identified as Adnan al-Unaybi, the Mahdi Army leader in areas south of Baghdad. The captured insurgent was responsible for weapons smuggling, spying for Iran, bombings against coalition forces and inciting sectarian violence, the U.S. military said in a statement.

The Sadr City raid and the capture of the insurgent leader were evidence that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has begun to follow through on his pledge to dismantle violent Shiite militias.

Dealing with the Mahdi Army has long proved a thorny challenge for U.S. and Iraqi forces, which put down two Sadr-led uprisings in 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 risky target.

In the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, Mahdi Army fighters gathered Friday to bury their dead in a vast cemetery holy to Shiites.

"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," said Jasim Muhammed, 36, a member of the Mahdi Army who said his cousin had died in the Sadr City clash.


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