A Storm of Sand and Shelling
Monday, April 28, 2008; 6:46 AM
BAGHDAD, April 27 -- Shelling rocked the Green Zone as a sandstorm blanketed Baghdad on Sunday, days after U.S. commanders said they had nearly eliminated deadly rocket and mortar attacks on the heavily fortified government zone through a security crackdown in the eastern slum of Sadr City.
Clashes continued over the weekend in Sadr City, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have confronted fighters tied to the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The U.S. military said drones fired Hellfire missiles, killing at least three men believed to be engaging in bomb attacks.
[U.S. military officials said early Monday that U.S. and Iraqi troops killed 38 militants in the clashes, including 22 who attacked a military checkpoint in Sadr City, the Associated Press reported.]
Abu Ammar al-Mayahi, a Mahdi Army fighter, said that U.S. and Iraqi forces continued to press into Sadr City on Sunday but that the dust storm curtailed U.S. use of air power.
Ground forces had been limited to city blocks at the edge of the district where authorities are building a security wall, he said. "The situation is intense," he added. "The weather is dusty. They are trying to get further inside."
Civilians living in the Green Zone said the rocket and mortar attacks Sunday were in double digits. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said there were no reports of casualties in the zone. A military spokesman said he knew of at least two Iraqi civilians killed and one wounded in the shelling, which often falls short of the compound.
The continuing violence has dimmed hopes that a cease-fire order issued by Sadr in August and reaffirmed on Friday would ease tensions in the city. Sadr said Friday that his threat this month of an "open war until liberation" did not mean a fight against Iraq's government, but rather "the occupier," meaning U.S. and allied foreign troops.
The move was seen as an attempt to lower tensions between Sadr's political movement and the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki initiated an offensive against Shiite militiamen last month in the southern city of Basra, and it quickly spread to Baghdad. Iraqi commanders have described Sadr City, where the Mahdi Army holds much control, as a foothold for armed outlaws.
The neighborhood was the scene of a sit-in protest Sunday led by members of the Sadr bloc in parliament, demanding an end to a three-week-old blockade of Sadr City and an end to military operations there.
Falah Hasan Shanshal, a parliament member who is a Sadr City resident, was among the protesters. He called for "dialogue and understanding" in place of the fighting, which he said was killing innocent women and children. He also called for a second sit-in on Monday.
On a satellite television program, Yaseen Majeed, a media adviser for the prime minister, called the sit-in a "cover for the outlaws."
Also Sunday, President Jalal Talabani met with parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani to discuss ways to end the Sadr City fighting, which he described in a statement as a "crisis between the government and the Sadr trend."
Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad, said late Sunday that U.S. soldiers were tracking several engagements in eastern Baghdad, which he said amounted to "un-aimed harassment fire." Stover said the attacks involved small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
"We are not the aggressor," he said. "We went into south Sadr City to stop the rocket and mortar attacks."