By Joshua Partlow and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 8, 2006; A12
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.
Another Mahdi fighter, Qais Shawkat, 56, said U.S. and Iraqi forces attacked a funeral tent for a militiaman who died recently, killing one man and wounding several others. Iraqi television showed crowds of people escorting minivans carrying away coffins, and the wreckage of what was reported to be the funeral tent.
Shawkat said the Mahdi Army was under orders from Sadr not to fight U.S. forces. "So, we didn't. We were surprised. We did not expect the Americans to come and attack us," he said.
The clash with the militia came on a day when Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Jack Reed (R.I.) were touring Iraq. Their visit includes stops in Baghdad and Basra and meetings with Maliki and cabinet members.
Biden said he noticed little difference in security since his previous visit, during elections in December. "The incidents are up, the militias in the last couple months have grown, not diminished, so I'm not impressed," Biden said.
He said he found it "disturbing" the Shiite-led government did not seem to have a sufficient sense of urgency about incorporating Sunni Muslim leaders into the political process. Unless there is a trustworthy police force and a greater Sunni commitment to peace, Biden said, "I don't know how they can keep this thing together."
Biden said that one year from now, if there is not significant progress reducing sectarian violence and disbanding the militias, and much more stability, "there's going to be really no prospect, in my view, of keeping any large number of American forces here."
Meanwhile, the Friday holiday was disrupted by attacks on both Shiite and Sunni mosques. A car bomb exploded after prayers at the Sunni Mustafa mosque in western Baghdad, killing seven worshipers and three mosque guards, said Col. Sami al-Masrawi of the Interior Ministry.
South of Baghdad, rocket-propelled grenades struck at a joint Iraqi army and police patrol guarding the Shiite al-Sajad mosque, killing two worshipers and two policemen, Masrawi said.
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Naseer Nouri and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad contributed to this report.