U.S. Fights Iraqi Militia in South
Sunday, April 8, 2007
BAGHDAD, April 7 -- American and Iraqi troops engaged in fierce fighting with Shiite militiamen in southern Iraq on Saturday, the second day of clashes that have raised the specter of a resurgence by the Mahdi Army after weeks of lying low.
As combat aircraft zoomed overhead, U.S. and Iraqi troops fought the militia in street shootouts and hunted down fighters in house-to-house raids in what the U.S. military said was an attempt to wrest control of the city of Diwaniyah from loyalists of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It was the third major clash between U.S.-allied forces and the Shiite militia in Diwaniyah in the past eight months.
Sadr has appeared to cooperate with U.S. and Iraqi troops as they carry out a U.S.-led plan to stabilize Baghdad and other parts of the country, even as he has continued to criticize the U.S. presence in Iraq and has called on his followers to resist it. As troops swept through his stronghold of Sadr City -- a Shiite district of Baghdad seen as crucial in the quest to temper violence in the capital -- his Mahdi Army has stood down on the orders of its leader.
U.S. military officials have said recently that Sadr's militia is splintering, which they said contributed to a pause in fighting but could make the group harder to defeat in the long run. It was unclear Saturday whether Sadr had ordered the Diwaniyah fighters to fight back or whether rogue elements were disobeying their leader.
"We have instructions from his eminence, Mr. President Moqtada, to defend ourselves in our houses, not in the streets," said Mounthir al-Quzueeni, 29, a taxi driver who identified himself as a member of the Mahdi Army.
Quzueeni said he had heard the order to fight from the local Sadr office. But he also said he was following an order from Sadr's late father, a revered religious leader killed in 1999, to resist all American, Israeli or British forces. "We won't give ourselves to the occupation. We will die defending ourselves," he said.
By Saturday night, 39 people had been detained in the operation, said Maj. Eric Verzola, a spokesman for the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. He said a U.S. airstrike on Saturday killed one person who was spotted launching a rocket-propelled grenade at military aircraft, bringing the two-day death toll to four.
Other officials offered different casualty figures. Hameed Jiati, director of the Diwaniyah Health Department, said 16 people had been killed over two days and 45 injured. Police said 14 people were killed and 24 injured Saturday, while a Sadr spokesman said five people were killed, including two Mahdi Army fighters.
Verzola said the Mahdi Army frequently pounds a nearby U.S. military base with rockets and mortar fire and plants bombs along the surrounding roads. The raids also were targeting Diwaniyah police officers suspected of being allied with the Mahdi militia, he said.
"We're looking to round up those folks, and to again return stability and safety and rule of law back to the government of Iraq," Verzola said.
The fighting began before dawn Friday, after U.S. helicopters dropped pamphlets on the city warning residents and police to stay indoors or risk being shot. The raids were concentrated in five Diwaniyah neighborhoods considered Mahdi Army hubs.
Residents and Verzola said the street battles were less intense Saturday and that the troops were instead focusing on raids. Faisal Waleed, 33, a tire shop owner, said gunmen wearing green headbands emblazoned with the word "Mahdi" or in black clothing -- the Mahdi Army uniform -- were cruising the streets of his militia-dominated neighborhood on Friday but had vanished by Saturday.