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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)

"If there were no Americans, there would be no fighting," said Abu Mustafa al-Thahabi, 38, a senior Mahdi Army member.

In August, Sadr ordered his militia to observe a cease-fire, a move widely credited with helping to reduce violence across Iraq. In recent days, Sadr officials have said the cease-fire remains in force. But in practice, his fighters and Iraqi and U.S. forces are waging full-scale war in places. Further fighting with his men could slow U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq.

American commanders said in recent days that their units were taking only a backup role in the offensive and that Iraqi forces were growing strong enough to shoulder the country's security needs.

Maj. Mark Cheadle, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said he could not make an accurate assessment of what the Post reporter saw without knowing the precise location. He underlined that U.S. troops were playing a backup role in the offensive but that on a battlefield that is "360 degrees," it might seem at times that they were out front. If an Iraqi unit was about to be overwhelmed by an enemy, "of course we are going to assist."

On Thursday, thousands of followers of Sadr turned out for a peaceful demonstration in Baghdad. Iraqi television channels carried crowd scenes in which people carried a coffin draped in flags and decorated with a portrait of Maliki. They denounced him as a "new dictator" and chanted: "Maliki keep your hands off. People do not want you."

Gunmen wearing police commando uniforms stormed the Baghdad home of a well-known member of Maliki's government, Tahseen al-Sheikhli, and took him hostage, according to the Information Ministry. Sheikhli is a chief spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, in charge of building public support for government efforts to quell violence in the city.

As fighting continued in Basra, saboteurs blew up one of the city's main oil pipelines. Gunmen opened fire on the city's police chief, wounding him and killing three of his bodyguards.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Mohammad, director of military operations at Iraq's Defense Ministry, said the Basra operation would continue until security forces captured the outlaws or wiped them out. He said the Iraqi military planned to seal and search every neighborhood to capture suspected criminals and confiscate weapons.

But an adviser to Iraqi security forces, who had predicted that the fight in Basra would take 10 days, said it could go on much longer. He also said Iraqi forces were calling on U.S. and British forces for help. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he was not authorized to speak with reporters.

"I think the government can't win this battle without interference of Americans or British," he said. "I think the aid or assistance is on the way." In his view, the Iraqi military needed air coverage and help with logistics and intelligence.

The fighters "are opening many, many fronts against the army," he said. The adviser said the militia's weapons, some of them made in Iran, are more powerful than those of the Iraqi army.

So far, casualties in Basra on all sides have totaled about 400 killed and 300 wounded, he said.

Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman, said Iraqi security forces were "consolidating their current positions" and preparing for the next stage of the offensive. They were cordoning off areas and trying to gain control of the city "bite-size chunk by bite-size chunk."

Residents in Basra said they observed Mahdi Army militiamen gathering in their neighborhood stronghold of Jumhuriyah, assembling men and weapons while dodging gunfire from Iraqi army snipers at intersections.

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Zaid Sabah, K.I. Ibrahim and Dalya Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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