By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006
BAGHDAD, Oct. 8 -- U.S. troops engaged in ferocious clashes with militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in southern Iraq on Sunday, ratcheting up tensions between two of the most powerful forces in the country.
The pre-dawn battles in the city of Diwaniyah, where the U.S. military said American and Iraqi forces killed 30 fighters, come amid growing concern by senior U.S. officials that the Iraqi government lacks the political will to tackle the militias and death squads threatening to plunge the country into civil war.
The Mahdi Army, Sadr's well-armed militia, accused the U.S. military of trying to provoke an all-out war between the two forces and said that only one of its members had been killed and perhaps two wounded.
"The American forces intend to launch a wide-scale operation against the Mahdi Army and will attempt to enter Sadr City," said Abdul Razaq al-Nadawi, the head of Sadr's office in Diwaniyah, referring to the Shiite Muslim cleric's stronghold in the capital. "This will have a very dangerous impact on security in Iraq."
In Washington, James A. Baker III, the Republican co-chairman of a bipartisan commission tasked by Congress with assessing U.S. options in Iraq, suggested that the panel would recommend a departure from President Bush's calls to "stay the course."
"I think it's fair to say our commission believes that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives, the ones that are out there in the political debate, of 'stay the course' and 'cut and run,' " Baker said in an interview on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."
The comments by Baker, a former secretary of state and a close confidant of the Bush family, are particularly significant because the blue-ribbon panel's findings, to be released after the November elections, are expected to carry significant weight with Congress and the president. Baker flatly rejected the idea of an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, saying, "I think that if we picked up and left right now, that you would see the biggest civil war you've ever seen." He emphasized that the Iraqi government's biggest challenge is disarming militias.
In Baghdad, police reported the discovery of at least 53 bodies dumped across the capital over the past 24 hours. All of the victims had been shot and tortured, and their hands were bound. Militias have been blamed for similar killings thought to be driving the sectarian bloodshed.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of five troops, bringing the American death toll for this month to at least 30. Three Marines assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5 were killed Friday in the western province of Anbar; one soldier was killed by small-arms fire Saturday northwest of Baghdad; and another, assigned to the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, was killed Saturday by a bomb in the northern city of Mosul.
The clashes in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, began shortly after midnight when an American-Iraqi patrol entering the area to detain a "high-value target" was bombarded by rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, the U.S. military said. At least one M1A2 Abrams tank was destroyed in the fighting.
The battles, which took place from about 2 to 8 a.m., did not result in any American or Iraqi army casualties, according to Mohammed al-Askary, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry. He said reports from local officials indicated that only 10 militiamen had been killed, though he declined to identify them as members of the Mahdi Army.
Witnesses and local officials, however, said the gunmen clearly belonged to the Mahdi Army, although both Iraqi police and army officials said the number of casualties was far lower than the 30 dead announced by the U.S. military.
"I don't believe that such a high number of dead did in fact occur," said an officer from the Iraqi army's 8th Division. "But we can't speak out about our differences with the coalition forces."
The fighting, which was the heaviest in Diwaniyah since at least 50 militiamen and 23 Iraqi soldiers were reported killed in a clash in August, left the city paralyzed for most of the day.
"Even the children could not go to school, even in the more secure areas of the city," said Qasim Ali, 32, who woke up to the sound of booming mortars and the chop-chop-chop of helicopters overhead. "We were not able to get out to our work or even go shopping for our traditional Ramadan breaking of the fast."
Nadawi, the Sadr official, said members of the Sadr movement were shocked when American and Iraqi forces poured into the city.
"We had an agreement with the representatives of the prime minister since the fighting last month," he said. "The agreement states that the American forces do not enter our cities or residential areas in Diwaniyah and all over Iraq. This has been followed until now."
Nadawi and other Sadr officials expressed concern that the U.S. military would soon launch a strike on Sadr City or other Sadr strongholds.
Asked to comment on whether Sadr forces were potential targets, Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman, said: "We are continuing operations against the illegal armed insurgent groups and the illegal armed militias who are trying to disrupt the legitimate operations of the government."
Meanwhile, as many as 700 police officers fell ill from poisoning at a base in the southern town of Numaniyah after a traditional meal Sunday night to break the Ramadan fast, the Associated Press reported. An Environment Ministry official said 11 officers died, though the provincial governor denied that there had been any fatalities, according to the AP.
Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf, Saad al-Izzi, K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.