– 2008-04-19 23:07:56
Iraqi Raids Target Shia Militias
Al-Jazeera / Reuters
(APRIL 19, 2008) — The siege of Baghdad’s Sadr City district has been called a ‘large humanitarian crisis.’ At least 12 people have been reported killed in overnight clashes in Baghdad’s Sadr City district as Iraqi forces step up a campaign against Shia armed groups.
In the southern city of Basra, Iraqi troops took control on Saturday of a neighbourhood which has seen clashes between security forces and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia leader.
Major-General Abdel Karim Khalaf, a military spokesman, told the AFP news agency: “We launched an operation in the morning. There was some exchange of fire. “The operation is now over in Hayaniya without any strong resistance.”
Hayaniya has been the scene of intense fighting since March 25, when Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, ordered a crackdown on militias in the southern port city. US fighter jets have carried out several air strikes in the district, leaving dozens of people dead.
Sadr City Clashes
In Baghdad, police described battles that began during sandstorms on Friday afternoon in Sadr City as among the heaviest in the capital since the crackdown began.
Officials at the Sadr City general hospital said 71 people were admitted for treatment of injuries received in the fighting, as well as 12 bodies.
Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover, a US military spokesman, said US troops were involved in sporadic clashes that continued into Saturday. He said US forces killed two fighters with a helicopter missile strike overnight.
US and Iraqi forces in the area have also come under repeated attack by fighters trying to prevent the construction of a concrete wall through the district.
The Americans are building a wall – up to 3.6m high in some places – along a main street to divide the southern portion of Sadr City from the northern, where Mahdi Army fighters loyal to al-Sadr are concentrated.
Stover said the wall was needed for security reasons – to rebuild a market burned down during fighting – but the project has angered residents, who have been trapped in the crowded battle zone for weeks.
Dr Maha al-Dori, a member of Iraq’s parliament loyal to al-Sadr, called the situation in Sadr City a “large humanitarian crisis”. Speaking to Al Jazeera, the MP said: “The hospitals are jammed with dead bodies… The occupation forces completely ban and open fire at any convoy trying to deliver humanitarian aid. “People here suffer from shortage of food supplies. The occupation forces have burnt the city’s markets.”
Al-Dori accused Iraqi and US forces of flouting a ceasefire with the Mahdi Army in order to eliminate political opposition, and of targeting women and children in the district.
“They have now completely surrounded Sadr City. The media is talking about Gaza, while we now have a second ‘Rafah Crossing’ in Sadr City,” she said, referring to Israel’s siege of the Palestinian territory.
Clashes between security forces and Shia militias were also reported near Nasiriya, a city about 320km southeast of Baghdad. Authorities imposed a curfew on the town of Suq al-Shiyoukh after a firefight in which two Mahdi Army fighters were killed and six policemen injured.
In Kirkuk, an Iraqi civilian was killed and three others were wounded in a car-bomb explosion in al-Hajjaj district, police said. Police also said that a soldier was killed and another injured in a bomb explosion that targeted an Iraqi army patrol in Baiji, west of Kirkuk.
Meanwhile, the US military said an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb while on patrol in northern Salahuddin province.
Al-Sadr Threatens ‘Open War’
(April 18, 2008) — Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shia Muslim leader, has threatened to declare “open war” if a security crackdown by Iraqi and US forces against his loyalists is not called off.
He said in a statement on Saturday that he was giving a final warning to the Shia-led Iraqi government “to take the path of peace and stop violence against its own people”.
“If it does not stop the militias that have infiltrated the government, then we will declare a war until liberation,” he said.
The warning comes nearly four weeks after Iraqi forces launched a crackdown against Shia militia groups in Basra and Baghdad’s Sadr City. The Mahdi Army, al-Sadr’s own force, is concentrated in both the areas.
Al-Sadr also accused the Iraqi government of being too close to the US military. “The occupation has made us target of its planes, tanks, air strikes and snipers. Without our support this government would not have been formed,” he said. “But with its alliance with the occupier [the Iraqi government] is not independent and sovereign as we would like it to be.”
Iraqi security forces moved against Shia militia groups in Basra on March 25, on the order of Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, himself a Shia.
US and British forces gave reconnaissance and tactical support to the Iraqi military during the crackdown, which triggered clashes across Shia areas of Iraq, including Sadr City, al-Sadr’s stronghold.
Although al-Sadr called his Mahdi Army fighters off the streets of Basra soon after the violence, raids by government forces have continued. Hundreds of people have been killed and wounded since the operation.
Rights Groups Criticised
At least 13 people were killed and 80 injured in Sadr City on Saturday, while Iraqi troops took control of a northern district of Basra.
Troops entered the Hayaniya district of Basra and took control after several hours, Major-General Abdel Karim Khalaf, an interior ministry spokesman, said. “We launched an operation in the morning. There was some exchange of fire. The operation is now over in Hayaniya without any strong resistance,” he said.
Al-Sadr also criticised human right groups in his statement on Saturday. He said: “Gaza was surrounded and everybody kept quiet. And now it is [Sadr] City and Basra and everybody is quiet. Where are the human rights. Where are the laws you want to adopt for freedom and democracy?”
The Iraqi and US military are building a security wall through Sadr City. The barrier is aimed at stopping fighters from firing rockets towards the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone, where the government and US embassy is situated.
Al-Sadr Followers Denounce Wall Americans Are Constructing
BAGHDAD (April 19, 2008) — Followers of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denounced the American military’s construction of a concrete wall through their Sadr City stronghold in Baghdad, the scene of renewed clashes Friday between his militiamen and U.S. and Iraqi troops.
The wall — a concrete barrier of varying height up to about 12 feet — is being built along a main street dividing the southern portion of Sadr City from the northern, where al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fighters are concentrated.
American commanders hope that construction of the Sadr City wall, which began Tuesday, will effectively cut off insurgents’ ability to move freely into the rest of Baghdad and hamper their ability to fire rockets and mortars at the Green Zone, the central Baghdad district where government offices and the U.S. Embassy are located.
Such walls have gone up in many other Baghdad neighborhoods and have been effective in cutting violence as the movement of insurgents was curtailed. But they have also raised some complaints from residents over difficulties in moving in and out through checkpoints.
Sadr City has become a chief battleground between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army after a trouble-plagued Iraqi crackdown on Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra last month.
That crackdown saw some 1,000 Iraqi soldiers refuse to fight the militiamen, and the Mahdi Army was largely able to battle troops to a standstill. The outcome raised questions whether Iraq’s Shiite-majority police and army can stand up to Shiite militias despite millions of dollars spent by the U.S. to train and equip government forces.
The relatively small-scale clashes since then have fueled worries over a total breakdown of a truce called last year by al-Sadr, with fears of wider violence.
The Sadrist movement stepped up its rhetoric Friday, denouncing Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government as “just like Saddam Hussein’s,” and the Mahdi Army called on Iraqi troops to put down their weapons and stop fighting.
At the same time, this week has seen a string of suicide bombings in Sunni regions that have killed 110 people, breaking a reduction in violence blamed on Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida militants.
The U.S. military on Friday issued a rare warning that it had specific intelligence of al-Qaida plans to carry out suicide bombings in Baghdad “in the near future.”
An Iraqi army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, told government television that the most likely targets were outdoor markets and other public places.
He urged the public to be on the lookout for abandoned vehicles and people wearing “suspicious clothes” that might conceal explosives and report them to the police.
In Sadr City, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops launched raids amid a heavy sandstorm Friday afternoon, police in the district said.
Mortar blasts went off during the fighting, and hospital and Interior Ministry officials reported seven people were killed and dozens wounded, including women and children. Police said a fire broke out in one of the markets of the sprawling slum, home to 2.5 million people.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. There was no immediate U.S. military comment on the raids.
The raids appeared to be a counterattack after militiamen overnight ambushed an Iraqi position in Sadr City under cover of the sandstorm.
The commander said an Iraqi army company abandoned their positions under the assault, including their command post in al-Nasir police station. The officer did not know exactly how many troops were involved. An Iraqi infantry company normally has 150 men but reports from the field say many are undermanned and have only 80 to 90.
The Iraqi military had no immediate comment, but a U.S. spokesman said the situation remained under control on Friday. “The Iraqi army still hold their positions in Sadr City,” said Lt. Col. Steve Stover in an e-mailed statement.
Regarding the wall, Stover said civilians will be allowed to move in and out of Sadr City but that militants have “created this environment where security precautions and protection of the people are paramount.”
Hazim al-Araji, a senior aide to al-Sadr in Baghdad, said the wall would turn “the residents to prisoners and the city to a big jail. All Sadr City residents reject this kind of siege on their city.”
Al-Maliki’s government also put pressure on al-Sadr’s followers in Basra, issuing an order that they leave their main headquarters in the city because the compound belonged to the government. Al-Sadr officials said they had been given 48 hours to leave.
Iraqi troops surrounded the building for several hours Friday until withdrawing in the afternoon. Harith al-Idahri, the head of office, said he was waiting for instructions from superiors on how to respond to the order.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said a roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier just north of Baghdad on Friday. At least 4,037 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Associated Press writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report
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