U.S. forces make rare entry into Sadr City

October 26, 2006|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- American-led forces battled gunmen in Sadr City during two rare forays into the vast Shiite Muslim slum yesterday, killing at least 10 people and drawing a swift rebuke from Iraq's prime minister.

The American troops, who called in airstrikes as they came under attack, were searching for a kidnapped U.S. soldier and hunting for a Shiite death squad leader, authorities said.

The U.S. military said in a statement that the raid had been authorized by the Iraqi government.

But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, quickly renounced the operation, telling reporters at a news conference that it was an example of a continuing lack of coordination between Iraqi and American-led troops.

"We are going to request some explanations from the multinational forces to prevent a similar incident and to ensure coordination with the Iraqi security forces," al-Maliki said.

Timetable rejected

The prime minister distanced himself further from the United States by rebutting talk this week by President Bush and his ambassador to Iraq of the establishment of timelines for the Iraqi government to solve some of the country's most intractable issues, including how to disarm militias, de-Baathification and revenue sharing.

"This government is one of popular will and national unity, and it is nobody's right to put timetables before it," al-Maliki said, suggesting such efforts have more to do with the coming American midterm elections than with the situation on the ground in Iraq.

On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters that the Iraqi government had agreed to a series of "benchmarks" by which the Iraqi government should solve key issues. The remarks about such a timetable came during a rare news conference with the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr.

Clarification

The military issued a "clarification" yesterday of a remark during the news conference by Casey.

The general had said, with respect to holding and building Baghdad neighborhoods: "Do we need more troops to do that? Maybe." He also repeated an earlier estimate that it would be 12 to 18 more months before Iraqi security forces can take over from American forces.

In its statement,, the military said that "there is no intent to bring more U.S. troops into Iraq at this time. The general was merely saying that all options are on the table."

Al-Maliki also went out of his way to praise the anti-American Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, for seemingly rejecting violence against other Muslims.

Al-Sadr has not renounced killing American troops, and U.S. commanders in Iraq have expressed a belief that al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, is behind most attacks against U.S. troops.

October has been the bloodiest month of the year for U.S. forces with at least 91 American troops killed. While al-Maliki has been under pressure from the U.S. to rein in Shiite militias, notably al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, the prime minister relies on the young cleric for political support. In addition to controlling the largest Shiite militia in Iraq, al-Sadr controls 30 seats in parliament.

In yesterday's raid on Sadr City, troops set out to capture a "top illegal armed group commander directing widespread death-squad activity throughout eastern Baghdad," the U.S. military said in a statement. It was unclear whether they caught the cell leader.

About 3 a.m., American-led troops entered a neighborhood on the outskirts of the slum, according to witnesses who said attack aircraft struck houses, roads and a local generator and troops on foot cut electricity wires.

"They want to drag us to a war with them," said Ahmed Hawki, 40, adding that the Iraqi government is unable to provide adequate security for him and his relatives.

Ali Habib, a 33-year-old photographer, also said the raid was a provocation. "If they want to detain someone, they don't have to use such barbaric methods - intimidating the women and children" in the middle of the night, he said.

Felah Shanshal, an al-Sadr associate, said members of his political bloc "appeal to the Iraqi government to present a suitable explanation to what has happened today."

The al-Sadr movement considered the raid a "blatant violation of the alleged sovereignty" of the Iraqi government, he said.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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