U.S. forces ventured into the Baghdad stronghold of a powerful Shiite militia on Friday hunting for a kidnapped U.S. soldier, two days after another raid in the area stoked tensions with the Iraqi government.
U.S. troops rarely enter the sprawling slum district of Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that Washington wants the government to disarm amid accusations it operates sectarian death squads.
Under pressure over Iraq before mid-term elections, U.S. President Bush said this week his support for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki depended on him taking "tough decisions," including curbing militias such as the Mehdi Army.
Witnesses and two officials of the Mahdi Army said there was a strong U.S. troop presence backed by air support in the northeast part of Sadr City. They reported clashes in the area but it was not immediately clear who was involved.
"It's ongoing operations specifically related to the search for the missing soldier," said U.S. Lt. Col. Christopher Garver.
Al-Maliki on Thursday said Iraq's most notorious death squad leader had escaped a major U.S.-led raid in Sadr City which the Americans said killed 10 "enemy fighters."
Wednesday's ground and air assault targeted Abu Deraa, a feared warlord held responsible for a rash of brutal sectarian killings and kidnappings of Iraqi Sunnis.
Raid tied to search
The Wednesday raid also targeted a mosque in connection with the hunt for the missing U.S. soldier, who left the safety of the fortified "Green Zone" on Monday to visit a relative.
The raid caused tensions with al-Maliki, whose government relies on al-Sadr's support. Al-Maliki said he was not informed in advance of the full scope of the mission.
Rising U.S. military casualties, sectarian violence and attacks on the Iraqi police and army have raised the pressure on Bush ahead of Nov. 7 elections that polls suggest may cost Bush's Republicans control of Congress. October is already the deadliest month for the U.S. military in a year, with 96 dead.
Iraqi security forces are suffering many more casualties.
U.S. forces have been out in force in various districts of Baghdad since Monday, conducting house-to-house searches and setting up checkpoints.
They have been on the outskirts of Sadr City for several days, though a senior U.S. officer declined to say which group was thought responsible for the kidnapping of the soldier, a linguist of Iraqi descent.
Mosul vehicle ban
Authorities imposed a vehicle ban in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Friday after the bodies of 12 people, including four police officers, were found in the past 24 hours, police said.
Insurgents had distributed leaflets in Mosul on Thursday threatening attacks on the police if they did not release several people detained during the past month.
In further evidence of the obstacles to building a police force capable of taking over from U.S. forces, 28 policemen were killed in an ambush north of Baghdad on Thursday, police said.
Al-Maliki told Reuters on Thursday his Shiite-led government could get violence under control in six months if U.S. forces gave them more weapons and responsibility.
He said police were having to share rifles but, with better American help, could bring respite from dozens of daily killings in half the 12-18 months the U.S. commander in Iraq says is needed before Iraqis can take full control.
Al-Maliki also said his priority was to suppress the insurgency and root out al-Qaida, rather than to disarm the militias.