By Karin Brulliard and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
But the city remained at a standstill, with residents cowering in their houses as mortar shells crashed down and military aircraft hovered above.
"The women in my house couldn't wash clothes and hang them on the roof, nor could any man or child, because of the American planes," Waleed said. "We would be killed by the Mahdi Army if we went out. They would consider us either spies or agents."
Spokesmen for Sadr in Diwaniyah said the militiamen had retreated to their homes and insisted they were not defying the cleric. But they conceded that some fighters might act out of self-protection.
"The occupation forces are raiding the homes of the Mahdi Army members, and those members are defending themselves," said Abdul Razak al-Nidawi, a Sadr spokesman. "Of course, we obey the orders of our leader, Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr," he said, using an honorific for the cleric, "but there is a limit to our patience and self-restraint."
Haider al-Natiq, another Sadr spokesman, said Mahdi Army field commanders had left the area on orders of Sadr officials who believed the U.S. and Iraqi forces were aiming to eliminate the militia's top leaders.
"If Sayyid Moqtada were to order a confrontation with the occupation forces, we would have wiped out those forces you see on the street now," Natiq said.
In October, at least 30 Mahdi Army fighters were killed when U.S. forces staged a raid in Diwaniyah. In August, 50 militiamen and 23 Iraqi soldiers were reported killed in a clash between Iraqi troops and Sadr loyalists.
In other developments, the military announced that two U.S. soldiers were killed and four others wounded in roadside bombings during patrols Friday in western Baghdad.
A car bomb in Sadr City killed at least three people and injured six, the Associated Press reported.
U.S. and Iraqi forces detained 14 people and seized weapons last week at what a U.S. military statement described as a "safe house" for a Sunni political party. The detainees were bodyguards for a member of Iraq's parliament, according to the statement, which did not name the party or the lawmaker.
Television news reports said the house belonged to Khalif al-Olayan, a leading member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, a Sunni political bloc. Among the items seized were 28 AK-47 assault rifles, more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition, bomb-making materials and photos of coffins draped with American flags, the military said.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Waleed Saffar contributed to this report.