Radical Shiite stronghold raided in Iraq
BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. and Iraqi forces on Wednesday raided Sadr City, the stronghold of the feared Shiite militia led by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki disavowed the operation, saying he had not been consulted and insisting "that it will not be repeated."
The defiant al-Maliki also slammed the top U.S. military and diplomatic representatives in Iraq for their Tuesday press conference, at which they said Iraq 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 said at a news conference.
At least four people were killed and 18 injured in the overnight fighting in the overwhelmingly Shiite eastern district known as Sadr City, according to Col. Khazim Abbas, a local police commander, and Qassim al-Suwaidi, director of the area's Imam Ali Hospital.
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 in a statement.
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. ...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 American 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.
Up to now, 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's like is one of the thorniest problems facing al-Maliki because his fragile Shiite-dominated government derives much of its power from the al-Sadr and a second political power with a powerful militia, the Supreme Council for the Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI.
Residents living near Sadr City said gun fire and air strikes began around 11:00 p.m. Tuesday night (2000 GMT) and continued for hours. The district on Baghdad's eastern edge was sealed to outsiders Wednesday morning.
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 firing flares.
Streets were empty and shops closed, although it was still receiving electricity from the national power grid, despite routine cuts to other parts of the city.
In his comments, Al-Maliki also appealed to neighboring states to cease 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.
His most recent comments follow a news conference Tuesday by Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who said Iraqi leaders had agreed to set 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,
Al-Maliki said he believed the U.S. talk of timelines was 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 on Tuesday the he would not hesitate to ask for more soldiers if he felt it necessary. He said, however, 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.
The timeline plan outlined by Khalilzad Tuesday was believed to have grown out of recent Washington meetings at which the Bush administration sought to reshape its Iraq policy amid mounting U.S. deaths and declining domestic support for the 44-month-old war. The plan was made public a day after White House press secretary Tony Snow said U.S. was adjusting its Iraq strategy but would not issue any ultimatums.
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 U.S. 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.
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