U.S.-Iraqi forces battle radical cleric's militia

Three killed in military raid on Shiite Muslim stronghold in Baghdad


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Families sleeping on rooftops to escape the summer heat were startled early yesterday by helicopters and gunfire as U.S. and Iraqi forces raided a Shiite Muslim stronghold and battled a militia headed by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The raid killed three people, destroyed three homes and sent families scurrying for cover. It came as U.S. forces were rotating 4,000 more soldiers into Baghdad in an effort to rout sectarian militias, death squads and insurgents that have tipped the city into an undeclared civil war.

Al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia are defiant against the U.S. occupation and have increased their power in Sadr City, a poor western Baghdad neighborhood of up to 2 million people. The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has vowed to bring Baghdad under control, but the Iraqi military has been unable to defeat insurgents and supplant Shiite and Sunni Arab militias.

An official from al-Sadr's office, Abu Mustafa Saidi, said U.S.-backed raid began about 1 a.m. and lasted more than an hour, injuring as many as 15 people. The U.S. military said the operation was aimed at capturing militants suspected of running torture gangs. It said U.S. forces encountered immediate fire from al-Sadr's supporters. One American soldier was injured.

"These bombardments came and definitely there was retaliation from our men," Saidi said. He added that during the gunbattles, al-Sadr, who was traveling in Najaf, called militia leaders and ordered them not to engage in intense fighting.

"Sadr informed them to make everything calm so the Iraqi and American soldiers would have no excuses for more attacks," Saidi said.

Abbas Dhahi Salman was sleeping with his family when a blast startled him.

"We felt the shock and sound on the second floor," he said. "We felt the air cooler fall to the ground and the second floor was ablaze. We were afraid to go out because we feared getting shot, so we called the police and ambulance, but they said it was a battle zone and they couldn't come."

Salman's mother and two children were injured in the attack. He said he suspected that Iraqi forces were searching for his neighbor, who is a member of the Mahdi Army.

"For the last 10 days, the situation in Sadr City has been tense and worrisome," Salman said. "We're starting to see more and more patrols, deployments of troops and more checkpoints."

An adviser to al-Maliki said the prime minister does not want military raids into the community to jeopardize reconciliation efforts between al-Sadr and the government. The adviser added that al-Maliki was not briefed on the operation beforehand and has informed the military to clear future actions in Sadr City with his office.

In a wide-ranging news conference after the raid, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said he was concerned about tensions between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's followers. He said such an atmosphere is "no way in the interests of the Sadr people nor the American and multinational forces."

The president called for militias controlled by al-Sadr and other sectarian leaders to either merge with government forces or disband. "There should never be any kind of force or army other than the government's army," Talabani said.

In violence across Iraq yesterday, a fruit truck exploded at a police station in Samarra, killing 10 people, most of them members of a special forces unit under the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry. Samarra became a flash point for the nation's sectarian violence in February when Sunni militants attacked a revered Shiite shrine.

Six Iraqi soldiers were killed and 15 were wounded when militants attacked a checkpoint in Baladrouz, about 30 miles southeast of Baqouba. One insurgent was killed. In Khan Bani Saad, about 20 miles northeast of Baghdad, a car bomb targeting a police foot patrol killed a police officer and a civilian.

Four Iraqi policemen were ambushed and killed by militants in Sadr City. A barber and four customers were killed in southeast Baghdad when gunmen jumped out of two sedans and sprayed the shop with bullets. Also in the eastern part of the city, a car bomb exploded near Mustansiriya University, injuring four people, including a police colonel.

One militant died and another was injured in Kirkuk when a car rigged with explosives "exploded on them by accident," according to a police official.

Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times

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