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U.S. Forces Raid Al-Sadr's Stronghold
Associated Press | May 26, 2007BAGHDAD - A day after radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resurfaced to end nearly four months in hiding and demand U.S. troops leave Iraq, American forces raided his Sadr City stronghold and killed five suspected militia fighters in air strikes Saturday.
U.S. and Iraqi forces called in the air strikes after a raid in which they captured a "suspected terrorist cell leader," the U.S. military said in statement.
The statement claimed the captured man was "the suspected leader in a secret cell terrorist network known for facilitating the transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran to Iraq, as well as bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for terrorist training."
EFP's are deadly roadside bombs that hurl a fist-size slug of molten copper that penetrates armor, a weapon that has been highly effective against American forces over the past year.
The militia fighters were killed in air strikes on nine cars that were seen positioning themselves to attack American forces after the raid, the military said.
Al-Sadr's reappearance in the fourth month of the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown on Baghdad and environs was expected to complicate the mission to crack down on violence and broker political compromise in the country.
Hours after the cleric spoke in at a key Shiite shrine in Kufa, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, the notorious leader of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in the city of Basra was killed in a shootout as British and Iraq troops tried to arrest him, police and the British military said, further inflaming tensions in the Shiite areas of southern Iraq.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of eight U.S. Soldiers and one Marine, putting May on pace to be one of the deadliest months for U.S. forces here in years.
Al-Sadr went underground - reportedly in Iran - at the start of the U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad 14 weeks ago. He also had ordered his militia off the streets to prevent conflict with U.S. forces.
His return to the Shiite holy city of Najaf appeared to be an effort by the 33-year-old firebrand cleric to regain control over his militia, which had begun fragmenting, and to take advantage of the illness of a Shiite rival. There also had been some indication that his absence from the national arena was costing him political support.
Al-Sadr drove in a long motorcade from Najaf to its sister city of Kufa to deliver an anti-American sermon to 6,000 chanting supporters at the main mosque.
While the call for a U.S. pullout was nothing new, al-Sadr also peppered his speech with nationalist overtones, criticizing the government for not providing services, appealing to his followers not to fight with Iraqi security forces and reaching out to Sunnis.
"To our Iraqi Sunni brothers, I say that the occupation sows dissension among us and that strength is unity and division is weakness," he said. "I'm ready to cooperate with them in all fields."
Al-Sadr did not address his reasons for returning.
However, during his time in absentia his militia appeared to have split into a faction calling itself the "noble Mahdi Army" and more extremist elements that it accuses of killing innocent Sunnis and embezzling funds. Some members of the more moderate faction were even willing to provide the U.S. military with information on their rivals in an effort to purge the militia.
In addition to trying to rein in the force, Al-Sadr is also believed to be honing plans to consolidate political gains and foster ties with Iran - and possibly trying to capitalize on the illness of Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and went to Iran for treatment.
Al-Sadr's associates say his strategy rests in part on his belief that Washington will soon start reducing troop strength, leaving behind a hole in Iraq's security and political power structure that he can fill. He also believes al-Maliki's government may soon collapse because of its failure to improve security, services and the economy, they say.
The Mahdi Army received a blow when its Basra leader, Wissam al-Waili, 23, also known as Abu Qadir, was shot and killed along with his brother and two aides during a gunbattle with British and Iraqi troops, police and the British military said.
The battle began about 4 p.m. during a raid to arrest al-Waili in Jumhoriyah, a middle class, residential area in central Basra, police said. Al-Waili and his three companions opened fire and were killed when the troops shot back, police said.
Late Friday and into the early hours of Saturday, Mahdi Army loyalists surrounded a police station after hitting it with mortar fire, a top Basra police official said. He claimed that British helicopters responded and fired on a house near the police station to drive away the attackers.
A second top police officer said two British forces and an Iraqi policeman were wounded. He said five Mahdi Army fighters were killed and 15 wounded. Both police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
The Ministry of Defense in London said a handful of militants was in the area and that there was a small number of casualties from "indirect fire," military terminology for mortar or rocket attacks. The ministry did not confirm the reported intervention by British helicopters.
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