Iraqi, U.S. soldiers fight with al-Sadr's army

Six dead, six hurt in battle in southern city that is in middle of Shiite power struggle

April 07, 2007|By Ned Parker | Ned Parker,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi and U.S. soldiers battled with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army yesterday in the south-central Iraqi city of Diwaniyah that has been in the throes of a Shiite power struggle.

As many as six Mahdi Army members were killed, 27 were detained and six wounded during fighting, the U.S. military said.

"There was steady resistance through the day," U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl said.

A man named Jassim from al-Sadr's Diwaniyah office said U.S. troops had entered the city at pre-dawn from three locations with tanks and helicopters flying overhead, taunting the Mahdi Army fighters.

"In some American vehicles, somebody who speaks Arabic using a loudspeaker challenged the gunmen with `Where are you ... oh, cowards ... come on!' and such words," the man said.

He claimed that two civilians had been killed by snipers as they tried to go to work, but the U.S. military said there were no civilian casualties and no U.S. air strikes.

There is increasing friction in Diwaniyah between al-Sadr loyalists and the province's ruling party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Police and local officials who are considered close to the foreign troops stationed there - but not involved in yesterday's assault - have been killed in recent weeks.

SCIRI supporters have accused al-Sadr loyalists of involvement in the killings, which officials from that group have denied.

The two groups are preparing for elections tentatively set for later this year. SCIRI controls the provincial council, but al-Sadr forces are popular on the streets and have infiltrated the police, said Polish Maj. Gen. Pawel Lamla, who commands the 1,500 foreign troops in Diwaniyah and Kut.

That has turned Diwaniyah into a volatile area, he told visiting officers at a meeting two weeks ago.

Lamla said that the Mahdi Army recently had intensified the fighting against his men and were using armor-piercing bombs, known as explosively formed projectiles.

He compared parts of Diwaniyah to the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad. Al-Sadr's movement has declared a freeze on military activities there as part of the city's security plan, launched Feb. 13. Many militia members have headed south, helping to fuel tensions among Shiite parties.

Meanwhile yesterday, in the western Sunni province of Anbar, a car bomb killed five police and wounded 12 in Ramadi, where the Abu Risha tribe has declared war on al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida-linked groups have used at least eight suicide chlorine bombs against tribes revolting against their domination of Anbar, the vast desert terrain that borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Al-Qaida militants recently assassinated the commander of the Sunni nationalist insurgent group named the 1920 Revolution Brigades.

Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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