By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007
BAGHDAD, Aug. 8 -- U.S. forces staged a major two-pronged attack early Wednesday on a vast Baghdad district controlled by Shiite militia groups, killing at least 17 people, according to the military and Iraqi police.
The raid on Sadr City, an area dominated by loyalists to Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was one of the largest in a series of U.S. attacks against Shiite militias. The most powerful group, Sadr's Mahdi Army, controls access to electricity, fuel and housing in much of eastern Baghdad as well as in some western neighborhoods.
The timing of the operation, less than 24 hours before the start of a major Shiite holiday, angered many of Baghdad's Shiites. A few hundred people staged a march Wednesday evening to protest the attack.
A U.S. military spokesman said in a statement that 32 suspected insurgents were killed and 12 others arrested in the operation, which targeted members of a Mahdi Army splinter group suspected of being part of a network that smuggles weapons from Iran.
Iraqi police said 17 people had been killed, including a handful of women and children.
The U.S. military has repeatedly accused Iran of providing weapons, training and funding to Shiite groups operating in Iraq. The people targeted in Wednesday's raid had facilitated the transport of "explosively formed penetrators," the deadliest type of roadside bomb used against U.S. troops, the military said.
Iran has repeatedly denied any connection to the militias, while some critics -- including some U.S. intelligence agents -- have said there is no concrete evidence of such a link.
Ahmed al-Shaibani, a spokesman for Sadr, condemned the raid. He said that the former director of the cleric's office, Amir al-Husseini, was arrested in the operation and that a significant number of innocent women and children were killed.
"The Iraqi government is responsible for the bloodshed of the innocents," Shaibani said in an interview.
Meanwhile, security forces spent the day preparing for a march by Shiites to the shrine of Imam Moussa Kadhim, one of 12 major Shiite Muslim saints. Iraqi police estimated that as many as 4 million pilgrims, some flogging and cutting themselves, will mark the holiday of grief, which was banned during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
Baghdad's streets are closed to cars from Wednesday morning until Saturday morning to prevent car bombings or other attacks during the holiday. Hundreds of additional Iraqi security personnel will patrol in and around Kadhimiyah, where the shrine is located, police said, but the U.S. military will keep clear of the area out of religious sensitivity.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spent Wednesday in Tehran, meeting with several Iranian leaders to discuss Iraq's declining security situation. Maliki has long sidestepped the question of whether Iran is aiding insurgents but said Wednesday night that its leaders are in a position to help quell the violence in Iraq.
"The prime minister called on Iranian companies to invest in Iraq and participate in rebuilding Iraq," a statement from Maliki's office said. "From his side, the Iranian vice president stressed that the security and stability of Iraq is important for Iran and the region's security, and that the Iranian government is ready to provide support to the national unity government."
At least six people were killed and 11 injured in mortar attacks in Baghdad on Wednesday, police said. Meanwhile, at least four people were killed in several incidents of violence around the northern city of Kirkuk.
One U.S. soldier was killed and four others were injured in a bombing on Tuesday, the military announced Wednesday.
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.