U.S. strike aimed at militia kills 32 in Iraq

Military denies action in Sadr City slum cost civilian lives

August 09, 2007|By Ned Parker | Ned Parker,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- U.S. aircraft opened fire on an east Baghdad neighborhood yesterday and killed 32 members of an al-Mahdi militia offshoot, the military said, in its latest strike against radical Shiite factions.

An Iraqi police official speaking on the condition of anonymity said nine people were killed, at least two of them women. The toll was later updated to 10.

Some residents in Sadr City, a Shiite slum largely controlled by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army, described watching as civilians were struck down, but a U.S. military spokesman insisted later they had killed only fighters.

The raid targeted the so-called Iraqi Special Groups, an armed faction that American officials say is backed by Iran and responsible for attacks using armor-piercing bombs that have killed U.S. troops. Since the spring, the Americans have waged a campaign in the impoverished residential area, home to more than 2.5 million people, as the U.S. forces seek to weaken al-Sadr's armed followers.

The early-morning strike targeted a network that the military said was responsible for smuggling weapons and the lethal bombs called explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran. The military accused the group of taking fighters to Iran for training. Twelve men were detained in the operation, the statement said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces came under sporadic fire when they raided a building, fatally shot two armed guards and detained suspects, the military said. When militia reinforcements started to arrive, the statement said, fighter jets and combat helicopters struck, claiming the lives of 30 more militants.

The EFPs, thought to be used mostly by Shiite militants, are viewed by the U.S. military as one of the gravest threats in Iraq. EFPs were used against U.S. forces 99 times in July, an all-time high, and killed 23 soldiers during the month, a military spokesman said. The EFP shoots off a molten copper slug that can burst through a Humvee or a Stryker vehicle's armor.

The U.S. military has managed in the past two months to cut deals with many Sunni Arabs who formerly fought the Americans and now want to battle insurgents affiliated with al-Qaida. While Sunnis have started to find common cause with the Americans, Shiite extremists carried out 73 percent of all attacks in July that killed or wounded U.S. forces in Baghdad, the military spokesman said.

The raid in Sadr City came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Iran to discuss Iraqi security and economic ties between the two nations. Iraqi officials, including some close to the prime minister, think Iran has been supplying weapons to al-Sadr-affiliated armed groups.

Meanwhile, the capital was under vehicle curfew ahead of today's annual ceremony at the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, a sacred religious figure for Shiite Muslims. Last year, snipers fired at pilgrims en route to the shrine in western Baghdad, killing about 20 people.

In 2005, panic among the crowd of tens of thousands triggered a stampede that left nearly 1,000 people dead.

The U.S. military also announced that a soldier was killed and four were wounded Tuesday in a bomb blast in western Baghdad.

Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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