Iraqi, U.S. Forces Put Pressure on Mahdi Army

Iraqi boys clean up a shop that was burned during clashes between Mahdi Army militiamen and Iraqi and U.S. forces.
Iraqi boys clean up a shop that was burned during clashes between Mahdi Army militiamen and Iraqi and U.S. forces. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008

BAGHDAD, April 18 -- Iraqi security forces backed up by the U.S. military killed four Mahdi Army militiamen and captured 11 others Friday, the Interior Ministry said, in heavy street fighting in the Shiite district of Sadr City. Two other militia fighters were killed in a clash south of Baghdad, the ministry said.

Using a sandstorm for cover, Mahdi Army fighters loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said they repelled convoys of Iraqi and American armored vehicles trying d to push deeper into Sadr City. American officials say Sadr City is being used as the base for mortar and missile attacks on the Green Zone, the fortified Baghdad enclave that houses many U.S. and Iraqi government offices.

Maj. Mark Cheadle, a U.S. military spokesman, said the Iraqi army was under attack along one of its routes in Sadr City late Friday. But he said the Iraqi army continued to hold its positions in Sadr City and was organizing a counterattack as a sandstorm lifted and American helicopters began to fly.

He said the Iraqi forces were in the lead, rather than U.S. troops, and were reacting with their own forces, including armored vehicles and ground troops. One soldier was wounded, he said.

Parts of Sadr City have become battlegrounds since late March, when the Iraqi government began an offensive against militias in the southern city of Basra. The attacks prompted resistance in areas of Baghdad where militias are a powerful presence.

Sadr's forces have repeatedly denounced the security campaigns as politically motivated attacks on the cleric's political movement ahead of important provincial elections later this year.

Mahdi Army fighter Abu Ameer, who would give only his nickname, said in a telephone interview that Iraqi and American armored vehicles tried to enter Sadr City from three sides Friday. He said they appeared to be trying to divide the area into four sections.

Abu Ameer said the fighters, including those not loyal to Sadr, were defending their homes. "Now it's turning," he said. "The whole city is defending themselves."

He said militia snipers were positioned on Sadr City rooftops and used the cover of the sandstorm to attack soldiers from short distances. "It's a gift from God," he said. "It serves us in an unbelievable way because they don't have air cover."

Abu Ameer said Sadr had not given orders to fight more aggressively. "If only Moqtada give us an order, we will set fire and burn them wherever they are," he said.

Brig. Gen. Qassim Atta, an Iraqi military spokesman, said security forces were working against armed men hiding among civilians in city fighting.

Cheadle, the U.S. military spokesman, acknowledged that American forces installing concrete security barriers in Sadr City had come under fire Friday. The U.S. military has walled off other violent neighborhoods in Baghdad and in other cities in Iraq. In the past, the barriers have drawn widespread condemnation, including complaints by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Also Friday, Sadr supporters said Iraqi troops surrounded Sadr's main office in Basra and halted Friday prayers.

"The army did not want anything from us today but to terrify us and ban us from practicing our normal religious ceremonies. We left the office then because we don't intend to exercise any kind of violence against them," said Ali al-Suaidi, a spokesman for Sadr's office in Basra.

The military issued a rare warning Friday saying it had credible evidence that al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgent group, is planning suicide bombings in central Baghdad. The military said numerous al-Qaeda insurgents had entered Baghdad to carry out car bombings or suicide attacks.

Special correspondents Aahad Ali in Basra, Naseer Nouri and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company