By Andy Mosher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
BAGHDAD, Aug. 7 -- A predawn raid by Iraqi troops and American military advisers on a stronghold of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr erupted into a two-hour gun battle Monday, according to residents and the U.S. military.
The operation in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood was aimed at "individuals involved in punishment and torture cell activities," the U.S. military said in a statement. The Iraqi troops who conducted the raid, along with their U.S. advisers, came under fire at the outset, the statement said, and "the fire lasted for the duration of the operation and continued as they left the neighborhood."
But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sharply criticized the operation, saying that it could hinder his efforts at national reconciliation. Maliki, who has been working with U.S. commanders on a new program to crack down on violence in Baghdad, appeared on local television Monday and said he was "very angered and pained."
"This operation used weapons that are unreasonable to detain someone -- like using planes," Maliki said.
He apologized to the Iraqi people for the operation, saying, "This won't happen again."
Residents of a nearby neighborhood said the fighting began about 1 a.m. and lasted about two hours. A police source told the Reuters news agency that two people were killed and 18 wounded in the clash; the U.S. military reported only that one soldier was wounded.
[Early Tuesday, three separate roadside bomb attacks in Baghdad killed at least nine people, the Reuters news agency reported, citing Iraqi police sources.]
Sadr City, a vast slum that is home mostly to poor Shiites, is a hotbed of support for Sadr, a young cleric who has opposed the U.S. military presence in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Sadr's well-armed militia, called the Mahdi Army, staged two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004 and is a potent force throughout most of Sadr City.
The Mahdi Army has been accused of carrying out frequent assassinations and kidnappings of Sunni Arabs, particularly around Baghdad in recent months. Recent operations by U.S. and Iraqi forces aimed at stemming death squad activity in Baghdad have included raids on Sadr City, though U.S. military spokesmen have said repeatedly that stepped-up efforts have not targeted particular groups.
Several hours after the raid, a suicide truck bomb killed at least 10 Iraqis at a police commando post in the northern city of Samarra, where the bombing of a Shiite shrine on Feb. 22 triggered the current wave of sectarian killings.
The truck, loaded with fruit and hidden explosives, swerved into the local headquarters of Interior Ministry commando forces and erupted in a massive explosion, according to local police. The deadly blast destroyed the headquarters building, police Capt. Zuhair Badrani said. Thirteen commandos were wounded, along with 18 civilians, he added.
Mohammad Abdul Hameed, a local resident who was hospitalized with shrapnel wounds and a broken right hand, said he saw the truck approach "at a high speed traveling on the wrong side of the two-way street. Then suddenly it swerved and rammed into the building."
Abdul Hameed described being "shoved against the wall, and I could not see anything because of the dust, the smoke and the blood that was running down my face."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and Muhanned Saif Aldin in Samarra contributed to this report.