US mounts attack against Shi'ite militia
At least 17 dead in crackdown on holiday eve
BAGHDAD -- US forces staged a major two-pronged attack on a neighborhood controlled by Shi'ite militia groups yesterday, killing at least 17 people, according to the military and Iraqi police.
The raid on Sadr City, an area dominated by loyalists to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was one of the largest in a series of US attacks against Shi'ite militias. The most powerful group, Sadr's Mahdi Army, controls access to electricity, fuel, and housing in much of eastern Baghdad as well as some western neighborhoods.
The timing of the operation, less than 24 hours before the start of a major Shi'ite holiday, angered many of Baghdad's Shi'ites. A few hundred people staged a march last night to protest the military action.
A US military spokesman said that 32 suspected insurgents had been killed and an additional 12 arrested in the operation, which targeted members of a Mahdi Army splinter group suspected of being part of a network that smuggles weapons from Iran.
Iraqi police said that 17 people had been killed, including several women and children.
The US military has repeatedly accused Iran of providing weapons, training, and funding to Shi'ite groups operating in Iraq. The people targeted in the raid had facilitated the transport of explosively formed penetrators, the deadliest type of roadside bomb, the military said.
Iran has repeatedly denied any connection to the militias, and other critics -- including some US intelligence agents -- have said there is no concrete evidence of such a link.
Ahmad al-Shaibani, a spokesman for Sadr, condemned the raid. He said the former director of the cleric's office, Amir al-Husseini, was arrested in the event and that a significant number of innocent women and children were killed.
"The Iraqi government is responsible for the bloodshed of the innocents," Shaibani said in an interview.
Meanwhile, security forces spent the day preparing for the Shi'ite march to the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim, one of 12 major Shi'ite saints. Iraqi police estimated that as many as 4 million pilgrims, some flogging and cutting themselves, will mark the holiday of grief, which was banned under Saddam Hussein.
Baghdad's streets are closed to cars through Saturday morning to prevent car bombs or other attacks during the holiday. Hundreds of extra Iraqi security forces will patrol in and around Kadhimiya, where the shrine is located, police said, but the US military will keep clear of the area in respect of the religious holiday.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spent yesterday in Iran, meeting with several leaders there to discuss Iraq's declining security situation. Maliki has long sidestepped the question of whether Iran is aiding insurgents, but said last night that its leaders are in a position to help quell the violence in Iraq.
"The prime minister called on Iranian companies to invest in Iraq and participate in rebuilding Iraq," a statement from Maliki's office said.
"From his side, the Iranian vice president stressed that the security and stability of Iraq is important for Iran and the region's security, and that the Iranian government in ready to provide support to the national unity government."
At least six people were killed and 11 others injured in mortar attacks in Baghdad yesterday, police said. At least four people were killed in violence around the northern area of Kirkuk.
Also, one US soldier was killed and four others were injured by a makeshift bomb on Tuesday, the military said.