Iraq: US in bloody clash with Sadr militia

From the London Times, March 27:

US TROOPS were accused of killing up to 22 Iraqis yesterday after becoming embroiled in a fierce battle with a powerful Shia militia at a Baghdad mosque, The reported clash, the circumstances of which were disputed by US Forces, raised fears in Washington that America was being drawn into the growing sectarian violence.

Iraqi police said that the clashes erupted after the Mahdi Army militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shia cleric, tried to stop US troops from entering a mosque in a Shia stronghold in eastern Baghdad.

It was unclear how the clash started, but a senior aide to Hojatoleslam [an honorific: “proof of Islam“] al-Sadr fanned the flames of anti-American sentiment by accusing the US troops of killing more than 20 unarmed worshippers during evening prayers.

“The American forces went into Mustafa mosque at prayers and killed more than 20 worshippers . . . They tied them up and shot them,” Hazim al-Araji, Hojatoleslam al-Sadr’s aide, said. A US spokesman said that the incident was being investigated.

US forces confirmed that a raid had taken place involving Iraqi and American troops. “No mosques were entered or damaged during this operation,” the US military insisted, adding that 16 “insurgents” had been killed and 15 others arrested.

Police sources said that 22 Mahdi Army fighters were killed in the fighting. However, Iraqi television broadcast video footage showing a tangle of dead male bodies with gunshot wounds on the floor of what was said to be the living quarters of the mosque’s imam.

If confirmed, the clash at the mosque would be the heaviest battle between US troops and the Mahdi Army for more than a year, at a time when the

US has been eager to show that it is handing control to the regular Iraqi Army.

Hojatoleslam al-Sadr has consistently preached opposition to the US-led presence in Iraq. In August 2004 he led a fierce battle with US forces in Najaf, the holiest city in Iraq, where hundreds of Mahdi fighters — based in the golden-domed shrine of Imam Ali — held out for nearly a month against the US Marines.

When Hojatoleslam al-Sadr eventually backed down, many hardliners within the Mahdi Army were furious, and the movement fragmented. The cleric then allowed his followers to stand as members of the Shia Alliance that was victorious in elections last December but never disarmed the force that provides his power base.

It continues to impose — at gunpoint — its radical interpretation of Sharia and inspires fear across southern Iraq, where it has infiltrated the police, civil service and municipal authorities. It remains a deadly instrument at its leader’s disposal.

Meanwhile US troops were involved in a separate confrontation with Iraqi government forces in Baghdad, detaining up to 40 members of the Iraqi Interior Ministry, who were holding 17 Sudanese nationals in a secret bunker complex.

In another grim discovery,the Iraqi Army reported that it had dispatched troops to investigate a report that 30 beheaded corpses were found in a village north of Baghdad.

And more about that from the AP:

Police and soldiers responding to a report of killings Sunday found 30 bodies, most beheaded, near a village north of Baghdad, in one of the bloodiest episodes in a cycle of apparent sectarian killings terrorizing Iraq, police reported.

Authorities reported no immediate information on the identities of the victims or on who may have been responsible.

Talabani said he had sent a battalion of soldiers to join a team from Diyala hospital to deal with the reported victims.

But then a military officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak, said soldiers had turned back from the scene, fearing an ambush. The search team did continue later, however, and discovered the bodies.

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