By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
BAGHDAD, Aug. 28 -- With American combat aircraft providing cover, U.S.-backed Iraqi troops battled radical Shiite militiamen Monday in the southern city of Diwaniyah in one of the first major clashes between the two forces. At least 20 Iraqi soldiers and eight civilians were killed, a U.S. military official said, citing initial reports. Seventy people were injured.
Also, a suicide bombing in Baghdad killed 15 and injured 35, capping one of the bloodiest 24 hours in Iraq in recent weeks.
The more-than-12-hour battle in Shiite Muslim-dominated Diwaniyah, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, illustrates the growing strength and confidence of the Mahdi Army militia of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is increasingly challenging the authority of the Iraqi government and, by extension, the United States.
Some Iraqi soldiers were captured and beheaded, Iraqi army officials said. As of late Monday, it was unclear how many militiamen had died.
Nine U.S. soldiers also were killed over the weekend in and around Baghdad, the U.S. military said Monday, making it one of the most lethal weekends for American troops in recent months. Seven U.S. soldiers were killed by roadside bomb attacks and one by gunfire on Sunday, while another soldier was killed by a roadside bomb on Saturday.
On Sunday, gunmen and bombers killed at least 69 people, the deadliest of the attacks taking place outside Baghdad, in northern cities.
Meanwhile, new allegations of indiscriminate killings by U.S. troops surfaced Monday. Relatives and neighbors of seven civilians shot dead during a gun battle in a Baghdad neighborhood on Sunday said U.S. soldiers had stepped out of their vehicles and randomly fired at their car.
"The soldiers decided to kill everyone on the streets, and my mother was one of them," Mohammed Sabah al-Dulaimi, 19, an engineering student said in a telephone interview. "They were angry. There's no other reason for killing. They took revenge."
Dulaimi's mother, Suad Jodah Yaseen, was returning from work in a company car, which stopped some distance away from the scene where a roadside bomb had struck a U.S. military vehicle, according to her brother, Hadi Jodah Yaseen, 50.
"But random shooting by American soldiers hit her in the head and the chest, and one bullet pierced her chest and came out of the back," Yaseen said.
Lt. Col Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman, confirmed that seven civilians were killed Sunday in Ghazaliyah, a volatile western Baghdad neighborhood where U.S. forces have bolstered their efforts to tame sectarian violence. But he said the civilians were caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between U.S. troops and insurgents.
Johnson said that insurgents opened fire on American troops with grenade launchers and guns after the roadside bomb detonated and that U.S. forces returned fire.
"These people were unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time," Johnson said. He added that there would be a review to determine whether a further investigation into the soldiers' actions is warranted.
The violence comes amid assertions by the Iraqi government and the U.S. military that they are clamping down on lawlessness and prevailing over extremists fueling the sectarian unrest gripping the capital.
Over the past week, attacks in Baghdad province averaged about 23 a day, lower than the monthly average for July, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman, told reporters Monday. Baghdad's average daily homicide rate also dropped 46 percent from July to August, he added.
Roadside bombs, too, decreased by 50 percent last week to a total of eight, making for the lowest monthly average in nearly eight months, he said. However that figure dramatically changed with the spike in roadside bombs over the weekend, he added.
Despite the recent sharp rise in violence, Caldwell said that "the operation is moving along as anticipated" to quell violence in Baghdad.
"It was always expected that there would be this extremist element that would get out and try to discredit the operations that are ongoing by striking at areas where civilians are readily available, where they can inflict some casualties," Caldwell said. "We'll continue to make every diligent effort to preclude that from happening."
The southern part of Iraq could emerge as the biggest challenge for U.S. and Iraqi forces, potentially rivaling the sectarian chaos in Baghdad. Upon taking office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed to eradicate the host of militias and death squads operating in the country. But 100 days after his coalition government was sworn into power, the militias, especially the Mahdi Army, remain key players in a struggle for power from Baghdad to the southern city of Basra.
Monday's clashes in Diwaniyah underscored the militias' growing influence. Tensions were already high. Three days earlier, the Iraqi army had arrested three prominent supporters of Sadr, said Abdul Razak al-Nadawi, the head of the cleric's office in Diwaniyah.
"They did this without any warrants," Nadawi said in an interview. "Usually, people are arrested by the police. But it was the Iraqi army who arrested them."
Soon after the arrests, Mahdi Army militiamen flooded the streets, clutching guns and engaging in minor clashes with police, said Kareem al-Musawi, 33, a resident.
"Then all the police withdrew from the streets," he said. "Then the armed men covered every street in the city."
Monday's clashes erupted after Iraqi soldiers, backed by Polish troops, attempted to raid three neighborhoods controlled by the Mahdi Army. The fighting began after midnight as explosions and gunfire rattled different parts of the city, residents said. As many as 26 mosques in Diwaniyah were damaged by Mahdi Army mortar attacks, the Iraqi army said in a statement. Shops, markets and government offices shut down, and frightened residents stayed inside their houses.
By late afternoon, the fighting had subsided. It was soon clear who had won.
"The city is fully controlled by the militia of Jaish al-Mahdi now," said Ahmed Fadhil, 45, a school teacher living in the center of Diwaniyah, using the Arabic term for Sadr's militia. "There are no police or Iraqi army in the streets of the city. I can see only the gunmen of Mahdi Army in the streets."
At a news conference, the governor of Diwaniyah, Khalil Ibrahim said that he visited Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Monday. He said Sadr had requested an investigation into what had happened in Diwaniyah.
For now, he said, the Mahdi Army still controls two big neighborhoods, "and neither the American forces nor Iraqi forces were able to enter these neighborhoods yet."
"The police refuse to go back to the streets, especially after three of their cars were set on fire Thursday," Ibrahim said.
On Monday, residents were stunned by their city's transformation.
"We had a stable city," said Musawi. "Now all the shops are closed. The streets are empty. No one is going out to the streets, and there is a curfew. It is a ghost city."
Meanwhile in Baghdad, a suicide bomber in a car detonated explosives at a checkpoint leading into the Interior Ministry, where a meeting of police chiefs from Iraq's 18 provinces was scheduled. The blast killed 15 people and injured 35.
The visiting British defense minister, Des Browne, told reporters in Baghdad that U.S.-led troops planned to turn over a second province, Dhi Qar, to Iraqi security forces next month. He joined other Western and Iraqi officials in pulling back recently from warnings last month -- including from Britain's outgoing ambassador to Iraq -- that Iraq could slide into all-out civil war. "My view is there is not a civil war in this country, and it is not likely that a civil war will develop," Browne said.
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer, special correspondents Saad Sarhan, K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.