U.S. Appears to Take Lead in Fighting in Baghdad

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 1, 2008; 9:58 AM

BAGHDAD, March 28 -- U.S. forces in armored vehicles battled Mahdi Army fighters Thursday in the vast Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, and military officials said Friday that U.S. aircraft bombed militant positions in the southern city of Basra, as the American role in a campaign against party-backed militias appeared to expand.

Iraqi army and police units appeared to be largely holding to the outskirts of the Sadr City fighting, as U.S. troops took the lead.

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 U.S. 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.

U.S. forces were involved in about a dozen firefights Thursday in Baghdad alone, with fighting spread across six neighborhoods, according to information released by the U.S. military Friday morning.

U.S. ground patrols in such areas as Kadhamiyah and New Baghdad repeatedly came under attack from small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, responding with their own weapons and in one case calling in helicopter support. In that incident, the helicopter fired a hellfire missile into a group of militants that had attacked U.S. troops manning a checkpoint in Kadhamiyah, killing three of them. When the militants renewed their attack, the helicopter returned and killed 10 more using a 30mm gun, according to a U.S. military release.

In all, U.S. troops killed 42 in Thursday's Baghdad fighting, a sign of their growing engagement in the Iraqi-designed offensive.

Thursday night, American aircraft dropped bombs on two locations in Basra in support of Iraqi ground forces, said Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman. He said coalition forces would continue to make airpower available at the request of Iraqi troops.

Coalition reconnaissance jets have been flying over the area for the past three days, but Thursday's action was the first airstrike.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, released details Friday on a fight that erupted Wednesday in Hillah, in which U.S. special forces joined with an Iraqi unit that had come under heavy assault. The Iraqi Special Weapons and Tactics unit lost nine men after a large force of militants attacked a road checkpoint. U.S. troops joined the battle, and a U.S. helicopter tracked the militant force as it pulled back and regrouped near a mosque. A hellfire missile strike killed five of them, and the rest of the group dispersed, according to a U.S. military statement.

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.

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