U.S. and Iraqi forces raided the stronghold of a Shiite militia led by a radical anti-American cleric in search of a death squad leader, but the deadly operation was quickly disavowed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki, who relies on political support from the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said the strike against a figure in al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia in Sadr City “will not be repeated.”
The defiant al-Maliki also slammed the top U.S. military and diplomatic representatives in Iraq for their Tuesday news conference at which they said his government needed to set a timetable to curb violence ravaging the country. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said al-Maliki had agreed.
“I affirm that this government represents the will of the people and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it,” al-Maliki told reporters.
Tank cannons boomed out over the city five times in rapid succession Wednesday afternoon, and U.S. F-16 jet fighters screamed low overhead as the conflict in Sadr City continued into the day.
Four people were killed and 18 wounded in overnight fighting in the overwhelmingly Shiite eastern district, according to Col. Khazim Abbas, a local police commander, and Qassim al-Suwaidi, director of the area’s Imam Ali Hospital. Earlier reports said five had been killed.
The U.S. military said Iraqi army special forces, backed up by U.S. advisers, carried out a raid to capture a “top illegal armed group commander directing widespread death squad activity throughout eastern Baghdad,” the military said.
'We will ask for clarification'
Al-Maliki, who is commander in chief of Iraq’s army, heatedly denied he knew anything about the raid.
“We will ask for clarification about what has happened in Sadr City. We will review this issue with the multinational forces so that it will not be repeated,” he said. “The Iraqi government should be aware and part of any military operation. Coordination is needed between Iraqi government and multinational forces.”
As the raid began, Iraqi forces were fired on and asked for U.S. airpower backup. The U.S. said it used “precision gunfire only to eliminate the enemy threat,” according to the military’s statement.
There was no word on casualties or whether the targeted death squad leader was captured.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have largely avoided the densely populated Sadr City slum, grid of rutted streets and tumble-down housing that is home to 2.5 million Shiites and under the control of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
Reining in the Mahdi Army and militia is one of the thorniest problems facing al-Maliki because his fragile Shiite-dominated government derives much of its power from al-Sadr and a second political power with a powerful militia, the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
Residents near Sadr City said gun fire and airstrikes began late Tuesday night and continued for hours. The district was sealed to outsiders Wednesday.
Groups of young men in black fatigues favored by the Mahdi Army were seen driving toward the area to join the fight.
Explosions and automatic weapons fire were heard above the noise of U.S. helicopters circling overhead and firing flares. Streets were empty and shops closed.
In his comments, al-Maliki also appealed to neighboring states to stop meddling in Iraq’s domestic affairs — an apparent reference to Iran and Syria, which are accused by the U.S. and Iraqi officials of aiding Sunni and Shiite armed groups.
He blamed foreign fighters in groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq and loyalists of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party regime for driving the current violence that takes the lives of around 40 Iraqis every day, and possibly many more.
“I would like to state here that the root of the battle we are fighting in Iraq and the root of the bloody cycle that we are undergoing is the presence of terror organizations that have arrived in the country,” al-Maliki said.
Al-Maliki has repeatedly pledged to deal with the militias but has resisted issuing firm ultimatums or deadlines.
No deadlines offered
His comments followed remarks Tuesday by Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who said Iraqi leaders had agreed to a timeline for achieving key political and security goals, including reining in such groups.
Khalilzad revealed neither specific deadlines for achieving those goals nor penalties for their failure to do so, and al-Maliki said no deadlines had been put to his government, dismissing the U.S. talk of timelines as driven by the upcoming U.S. midterm election.
“We are not much concerned with it,” al-Maliki said.
As violence spiked in Baghdad and elsewhere, Casey said he would not hesitate to ask for more soldiers if he felt it necessary. He said, however, that he had not made a decision.
“Now, do we need more troops to do that? Maybe. And, as I’ve said all along, if we do, I will ask for the troops I need, both coalition and Iraqis,” Casey said.
Khalilzad said al-Maliki had agreed to the timeline concept that called for specific deadlines to be set by year’s end. U.S. officials revealed neither specific incentives for the Iraqis to implement the plan nor penalties for their failure to do so.
October has been the deadliest month this year for American forces. The military Tuesday announced the deaths of two more Marines, a sailor and a soldier. Since the start of the war, 2,801 U.S. service members have died in Iraq, according to an Associated Press count.
Also Wednesday, the military said it was continuing a search for a U.S. Army translator missing after he was believed to have been kidnapped Monday night in Baghdad. Troops had detained some suspects who “could possibly be involved,” said a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington.
Scattered violence continued elsewhere in the country, with six people killed when a roadside bomb destroyed their vehicle in Balad Ruz, about 40 miles northeast of Baghdad. Other mortar and bomb attacks in the area wounded several people.