U.S. Fights Iraqi Mili­tia in South

Clashes Aimed at Wrest­ing Con­trol of City From Mahdi Army

The Washington Post Sunday - - The Conflict In Iraq - By Karin Brul­liard and Saad Sarhan

BAGH­DAD, April 7 — Amer­i­can and Iraqi troops en­gaged in fierce fight­ing with Shi­ite mili­ti­a­men in south­ern Iraq on Satur­day, the sec­ond day of clashes that have raised the specter of a resur­gence by the Mahdi Army af­ter weeks of ly­ing low.

As com­bat air­craft zoomed over­head, U.S. and Iraqi troops fought the mili­tia in street shootouts and hunted down fight­ers in house-to­house raids in what the U.S. mil­i­tary said was an at­tempt to wrest con­trol of the city of Di­waniyah from loy­al­ists of fire­brand Shi­ite cleric Mo­q­tada al-Sadr. It was the third ma­jor clash be­tween U.S.al­lied forces and the Shi­ite mili­tia in Di­waniyah in the past eight months.

Sadr has ap­peared to co­op­er­ate with U.S. and Iraqi troops as they carry out a U.S.-led plan to sta­bi­lize Bagh­dad and other parts of the coun­try, even as he has con­tin­ued to crit­i­cize the U.S. pres­ence in Iraq and has called on his fol­low­ers to re­sist it. As troops swept through his strong­hold of Sadr City — a Shi­ite dis­trict of Bagh­dad seen as cru­cial in the quest to tem­per vi­o­lence in the cap­i­tal — his Mahdi Army has stood down on the or­ders of its leader.

U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have said re­cently that Sadr’s mili­tia is splin­ter­ing, which they said con­trib­uted to a pause in fight­ing but could make the group harder to de­feat in the long run. It was un­clear Satur­day whether Sadr had or­dered the Di­waniyah fight­ers to fight back or whether rogue el­e­ments were dis­obey­ing their leader.

“We have in­struc­tions from his em­i­nence, Mr. Pres­i­dent Mo­q­tada, to de­fend our­selves in our houses, not in the streets,” said Moun­thir alQuzueeni, 29, a taxi driver who iden­ti­fied him­self as a mem­ber of the Mahdi Army.

Quzueeni said he had heard the or­der to fight from the lo­cal Sadr of­fice. But he also said he was fol­low­ing an or­der from Sadr’s late fa­ther, a revered re­li­gious leader killed in 1999, to re­sist all Amer­i­can, Is­raeli or Bri­tish forces. “We won’t give our­selves to the oc­cu­pa­tion. We will die de­fend­ing our­selves,” he said.

By Satur­day night, 39 peo­ple had been de­tained in the op­er­a­tion, said Maj. Eric Ver­zola, a spokesman for the 4th Brigade Com­bat Team, 25th In­fantry Di­vi­sion. He said a U.S. airstrike on Satur­day killed one per­son who was spot­ted launch­ing a rocket-pro­pelled grenade at mil­i­tary air­craft, bring­ing the two-day death toll to four.

Other of­fi­cials of­fered dif­fer­ent ca­su­alty fig­ures. Hameed Jiati, di­rec­tor of the Di­waniyah Health De­part­ment, said 16 peo­ple had been killed over two days and 45 in­jured. Po­lice said 14 peo­ple were killed and 24 in­jured Satur­day, while a Sadr spokesman said five peo­ple were killed, in­clud­ing two Mahdi Army fight­ers.

Ver­zola said the Mahdi Army fre­quently pounds a nearby U.S. mil­i­tary base with rock­ets and mor­tar fire and plants bombs along the sur­round­ing roads. The raids also were tar­get­ing Di­waniyah po­lice of­fi­cers sus­pected of be­ing al­lied with the Mahdi mili­tia, he said.

“We’re look­ing to round up those folks, and to again re­turn sta­bil­ity and safety and rule of law back to the gov­ern­ment of Iraq,” Ver­zola said.

The fight­ing be­gan be­fore dawn Fri­day, af­ter U.S. he­li­copters dropped pam­phlets on the city warn­ing res­i­dents and po­lice to stay in­doors or risk be­ing shot. The raids were con­cen­trated in five Di­waniyah neigh­bor­hoods con­sid­ered Mahdi Army hubs.

Res­i­dents and Ver­zola said the street bat­tles were less in­tense Satur­day and that the troops were in­stead fo­cus­ing on raids. Faisal Waleed, 33, a tire shop owner, said gun­men wear­ing green head­bands em­bla­zoned with the word “Mahdi” or in black cloth­ing — the Mahdi Army uni­form — were cruis­ing the streets of his mili­tia-dom­i­nated neigh­bor­hood on Fri­day but had van­ished by Satur­day.

But the city re­mained at a stand­still, with res­i­dents cow­er­ing in their houses as mor­tar shells crashed down and mil­i­tary air­craft hov­ered above.

“The women in my house couldn’t wash clothes and hang them on the roof, nor could any man or child, be­cause of the Amer­i­can planes,” Waleed said. “We would be killed by the Mahdi Army if we went out. They would con­sider us ei­ther spies or agents.”

Spokes­men for Sadr in Di­waniyah said the mili­ti­a­men had re­treated to their homes and in­sisted they were not de­fy­ing the cleric. But they con­ceded that some fight­ers might act out of self-pro­tec­tion.

“The oc­cu­pa­tion forces are raid­ing the homes of the Mahdi Army mem­bers, and those mem­bers are de­fend­ing them­selves,” said Ab­dul Razak al-Ni­dawi, a Sadr spokesman. “Of course, we obey the or­ders of our leader, Sayyid Mo­q­tada alSadr,” he said, us­ing an hon­orific for the cleric, “but there is a limit to our pa­tience and self-re­straint.”

Haider al-Na­tiq, an­other Sadr spokesman, said Mahdi Army field com­man­ders had left the area on or­ders of Sadr of­fi­cials who be­lieved the U.S. and Iraqi forces were aiming to elim­i­nate the mili­tia’s top lead­ers.

“If Sayyid Mo­q­tada were to or­der a con­fronta­tion with the oc­cu­pa­tion forces, we would have wiped out those forces you see on the street now,” Na­tiq said.

In Oc­to­ber, at least 30 Mahdi Army fight­ers were killed when U.S. forces staged a raid in Di­waniyah. In Au­gust, 50 mili­ti­a­men and 23 Iraqi sol­diers were re­ported killed in a clash be­tween Iraqi troops and Sadr loy­al­ists.

In other de­vel­op­ments, the mil­i­tary an­nounced that two U.S. sol­diers were killed and four oth­ers wounded in road­side bomb­ings dur­ing pa­trols Fri­day in west­ern Bagh­dad.

A car bomb in Sadr City killed at least three peo­ple and in­jured six, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported.

U.S. and Iraqi forces de­tained 14 peo­ple and seized weapons last week at what a U.S. mil­i­tary state­ment de­scribed as a “safe house” for a Sunni po­lit­i­cal party. The de­tainees were body­guards for a mem­ber of Iraq’s par­lia­ment, ac­cord­ing to the state­ment, which did not name the party or the law­maker.

Television news re­ports said the house be­longed to Khalif al-Olayan, a lead­ing mem­ber of the Iraqi Ac­cor­dance Front, a Sunni po­lit­i­cal bloc. Among the items seized were 28 AK-47 as­sault ri­fles, more than 5,000 rounds of am­mu­ni­tion, bomb- mak­ing ma­te­ri­als and pho­tos of coffins draped with Amer­i­can flags, the mil­i­tary said. Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dents Naseer Nouri and Waleed Saf­far con­trib­uted to this re­port.

BY ALI ABED — AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

At least three civil­ians were killed and six hurt in a car bomb at­tack in Bagh­dad’s Sadr City. In west­ern Bagh­dad, the U.S. mil­i­tary said, two Amer­i­can sol­diers were killed and four oth­ers wounded Fri­day in road­side bomb­ings.

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