U.S. and Iraqi forces clash with militias in Diwaniyah; U.S. tank seriously damaged

Sunday, October 8th 2006, 12:37 pm
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ U.S. and Iraqi forces clashed with Shiite militiamen Sunday in the southern city of Diwaniyah after a raid on the home of a leader of the Mahdi Army, accused of killing Sunnis in Iraq's spiral of sectarian violence.

The U.S. military said 30 militiamen were killed in the fighting, which came about two months after a similar battle in the predominantly Shiite city, 80 miles south of Baghdad. Officials from the party of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which heads the militia denied any of their fighters were killed.

A U.S. Abrams tank was seriously damaged when it was hammered by rocket-propelled grenades, but no casualties were reported among the U.S. or Iraqi forces.

U.S. troops have been stepping up pressure on the Mahdi Army in past weeks, launching raids on the militia's members and leaders in Baghdad and elsewhere as part of an intensified sweep in the capital aimed at reducing mounting bloodshed.

The U.S. command also announced the deaths of two more soldiers, both killed Saturday. One died when insurgents attacked his patrol northwest of Baghdad, while the other was killed by a roadside bomb, the military said without specifying where the attack took place.

The deaths brought to 26 the number of Americans killed in Iraq this month _ at least 16 of them in Baghdad amid the district-by-district crackdown.

At least 13 other violent deaths were reported nationwide, including a Shiite woman and her young daughter who were killed Sunday when gunmen opened fire on their minivan in Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad. The driver also was killed, and the woman's husband and her brother were wounded.

Police also found 51 bullet-riddled bodies in various parts of Baghdad during a 24-hour period ending Sunday morning, police 1st Lt. Mohammed Khayoun said, all apparent victims of the sectarian death squads that roam the capital, with many of the bodies showing signs of torture.

The U.S. has shown increasing impatience with the failure of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to rein in militias fueling the Shiite-Sunni killings that many believe now pose a greater threat to Iraq's stability than al-Qaida or the anti-U.S. insurgency.

Sunni leaders accuse al-Maliki of hesitating to take action against Shiite militias because many of them _ like the Mahdi Army _ belong to political parties that his government relies on for support.

Fighting broke out in Diwaniyah after a joint U.S.-Iraqi unit raided the house of Kifah al-Greiti, a Mahdi Army commander, after midnight, Iraqi army Capt. Fatiq Ayed said.

A fierce battle broke out, lasting through the night and into Sunday morning. Fighting could be seen in two neighborhoods and heavy explosions could be heard, eventually stopping by midmorning.

The U.S. military said as many as 10 teams of militiamen with rocket-propelled grenades attacked Iraqi and U.S. troops. An M1A2 Abrams tank was struck by multiple RPG rounds and was severely damaged, the military said.

In the morning, troops barricaded off entrances to the area to prevent militia reinforcements from entering. The military said 30 militiamen were killed, with no casualties among the U.S. or Iraqi forces.

The troops were targeting a ``high-value target,'' who was involved in killing Iraqi army soldiers on Aug. 28, when they came under attack, the U.S. command said in a statement without identifying the target. It said the target was captured along with three other people.

Iraqi police said they had warrants out for the arrest of 15 Mahdi Army members in connection with the Aug. 28 execution-style slayings of Iraqi soldiers.

Iraqi police Lt. Raed Jabir and Mahdi Army officials said al-Greiti was not arrested, and it was not clear who the captured target was.

``Al-Greiti is one of the American's most wanted commanders in the city,'' Fadhil Qasir, a spokesman for the Mahdi Army, told The Associated Press in Diwaniyah. ``They have tried to arrest him several times before and they failed this time also.''

Qasir also denied that the Mahdi Army had suffered any deaths. Diyaa Ghanim, a doctor at the Diwaniyah general hospital, said as of early afternoon the facility had received no bodies.

Sheik Abdul-Razzaq al-Nadawi, the head of al-Sadr's office in Diwaniyah, said the Mahdi Army suffered no fatalities but three were wounded and in critical condition.

He said al-Sadr's office had negotiated an arrangement with the prime minister's office that U.S. troops would not enter Mahdi Army neighborhoods in Diwaniyah, and that the presence of U.S. troops overnight had provoked the clashes. ``We don't attack, but when we are attacked, we respond,'' he said.

Following the fighting, Iraqi authorities imposed a full curfew in Diwaniyah until further notice, Jabir said.

Diwaniyah was the scene of a fierce fight in August between the Mahdi Army and Iraqi forces that left 23 Iraqi troops and 50 militiamen killed and scores more wounded.

Elsewhere, authorities in Kirkuk ended a security sweep by some 2,000 Iraqi soldiers and police aimed at getting rid of weapons in the northern city, which has seen escalating violence in past weeks. An all-day curfew imposed Saturday during the crackdown was lifted.

The troops arrested some 150 suspected insurgents and seized 380 assault rifles and 200 pistols in the house-to-house search, police Brig. Sarhat Qadir said. The sweep began in mainly Kurdish areas in the north of the city, then moved down into the south and west of the city, where the Sunni Arab population is centered.

Kirkuk, a major oil center, is at the center of a struggle for power between Sunni Arabs and ethnic Turkmen and Kurds, who claim the city as their own and want it eventually to be included in their self-rule enclave to the north.

In other violence Sunday, according to police:

_ A roadside bomb killed an Iraqi police colonel in a convoy outside the northern city of Mosul.

_ Gunmen killed another man near his house in Mosul.

_ Police found the corpse of a shooting victim, who apparently had been killed about a week ago, east of Mosul.

_ Another body showing signs of torture was found and a mortar shell killed a civilian and wounded two others in Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad.

_ A roadside bomb killed four people and wounded another on the highway near Tikrit, north of Baghdad.

_ A bomb in Baghdad killed a policeman.