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U.S. Armor Forces Join Offensive In Baghdad Against Sadr Militia

Demonstrators hold a picture of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr while chanting slogans during a protest in Baghdad against a three day-old crackdown against his followers.
Demonstrators hold a picture of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr while chanting slogans during a protest in Baghdad against a three day-old crackdown against his followers. (Ceerwan Aziz -- Reuters)

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By Sudarsan Raghavan and Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 28, 2008

BAGHDAD, March 27 -- U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in Sadr City, the vast Shiite stronghold in eastern Baghdad, as an offensive to quell party-backed militias entered its third day. Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the area as American troops took the lead in the fighting.

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Four U.S. Stryker armored vehicles were seen in Sadr City by a Washington Post correspondent, one of them engaging Mahdi Army militiamen with heavy fire. The din of American weapons, along with the Mahdi Army's AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, was heard through much of the day. U.S. helicopters and drones buzzed overhead.

The clashes suggested that American forces were being drawn more deeply into a broad offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, launched in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday, saying death squads, criminal gangs and rogue militias were the targets. The Mahdi Army of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite rival of Maliki, appeared to have taken the brunt of the attacks; fighting spread to many southern cities and parts of Baghdad.

As President Bush told an Ohio audience that Iraq was returning to "normalcy," administration officials in Washington held meetings to assess what appeared to be a rapidly deteriorating security situation in many parts of the country.

Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials. With little U.S. presence in the south, and British forces in Basra confined to an air base outside the city, one administration official said that "we can't quite decipher" what is going on. It's a question, he said, of "who's got the best conspiracy" theory about why Maliki decided to act now.

In Basra, three rival Shiite groups have been trying to position themselves, sometimes through force of arms, to dominate recently approved provincial elections.

The U.S. officials, who were not authorized to speak on the record, said that they believe Iran has provided assistance in the past to all three groups -- the Mahdi Army; the Badr Organization of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Iraq's largest Shiite party; and forces loyal to the Fadhila Party, which holds the Basra governor's seat. But the officials see the current conflict as a purely internal Iraqi dispute.

Some officials have concluded that Maliki himself is firing "the first salvo in upcoming elections," the administration official said.

"His dog in that fight is that he is basically allied with the Badr Corps" against forces loyal to Sadr, the official said. "It's not a pretty picture."

Elements of Sadr's militia have fought fiercely, including rocketing the Green Zone, the huge fortified compound in Baghdad where the U.S. Embassy, Iraqi government offices and international agencies are located.

Starting about 5:25 p.m., the Post reporter heard the launch of 14 rockets, which Mahdi Army officers in the area said were aimed at the Green Zone. U.S. officials reported that 12 rounds hit the zone in that time frame, including six that fell inside the embassy compound. An American civilian contractor was killed in a residential area of the embassy compound, while another death was reported in the zone's U.N. compound.

Several Mahdi Army commanders said they had been fighting U.S. forces for the past three days in Sadr City, engaging Humvees as well as the Strykers. By their account, an Iraqi special forces unit had entered Sadr City from another direction, backed by Americans, but otherwise the fighting had not been with Iraqis.


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