U.S., British Troops Battle Shiite Militiamen in East

By Joshua Partlow and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

BAGHDAD, June 18 -- In the early morning darkness of Monday, Shiite militiamen fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at oncoming U.S. and British troops, who responded by overwhelming the attackers with gunfire and airstrikes that left at least 20 people dead, the U.S. military said.

The firefight in Maysan province came as thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops pushed into insurgent strongholds around Baghdad as part of an intensified effort to disrupt militants before they can launch attacks in the capital. The operations are bolstered by the full forces of five new U.S. combat brigades that are now on the ground. A priority of the effort is in the rural territory south of Baghdad, near where two of the five brigades are based.

The U.S. military reported Monday that fighter jets on Saturday dropped four "precision-guided bombs" in the Arab Jubour area south of the capital while 1,200 soldiers maneuvered to prevent insurgents from entering Baghdad.

The fighting in Maysan, which abuts the Iranian border in southern Iraq, broke out about 2:30 a.m. in two predominantly Shiite cities -- Amarah and Majar al-Kabir -- when U.S.-led troops raided areas looking for people believed to be militiamen involved in funneling armor-piercing explosives and fighters from Iran into Iraq. After the clashes started, attack aircraft strafed the areas. In addition to those killed, at least six people were injured, the U.S. military said.

No Iraqi soldiers participated in the attack, even though Iraqi officials took responsibility for security in Maysan in April. Both U.S. and British military spokesmen said that the Iraqi government approved the mission, but a Maysan province security official, Latif al-Tamimi, said "occupation forces" conducted the raids without the knowledge of the provincial council. He called for an investigation into the attack because of what he said were civilian casualties.

Many of those fighting the U.S. and Iraqi forces were affiliated with the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia led by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, according to Sadr spokesmen and Iraqi police. The combat was some of the most intense between American-led forces and the Mahdi Army since the start of the latest security plan in mid-February.

American intelligence reports indicate that "Iranian surrogates, or Iraqis that are liaisons for Iranian intelligence operatives into Iraq," use both Amarah and Majar al-Kabir as "safe haven locations," the U.S. military said in a statement. American officials have long contended that insurgent groups are using powerful Iranian-made explosives to attack U.S. forces.

A British military spokesman, Maj. David Gell, said that the targeted militiamen also were involved in "intimidation, extortion of money, and murder of innocent Iraqi civilians."

The death toll of 20 provided by the Americans was disputed by Iraqi officials. The fighting killed at least 34 people and wounded dozens more, according to a Maysan police official who spoke on condition of anonymity. At least 32 corpses believed to be from the Amarah area were brought to the Shiite holy city of Najaf for burial on Monday, including women and children, witnesses said.

Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, denied that women and children had been killed in the confrontations.

Ahmed al-Shaibani, a Sadr spokesman in Najaf, accused the "occupation armies, whether the British or the Americans, of trying to drag the Sadr followers into fighting in the cities." He put the death toll at 30 with another 60 people injured.

In other violence, a U.S. military spokesman said a soldier was killed while on foot patrol in southern Baghdad when a bomb exploded.

Also Monday, Iraqi police said they clashed with Mahdi Army fighters in the southern city of Nasiriyah. At least five people were killed and dozens more injured in the clashes, according to Salah al-Ubaidi, an official in Sadr's organization.

In Samarra, north of Baghdad, where an important Shiite shrine was bombed last week for a second time, leading to retaliatory violence and prolonged curfews, a suicide bomber exploded a bus inside a school where Iraqi police commandos were stationed, according to Capt. Zuhair Badrani of the Samarra police. Four people died and eight others were injured in the blast, he said.

Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Salih Dehema in Baghdad contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company