- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Negotiations for a new Iraqi government were back on track in Baghdad yesterday, despite continuing Shi’ite fury over an Iraqi-U.S. weekend raid on a complex used by loyalists of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Pentagon officials showed reporters photographs from the operation that left at least 16 Iraqis dead, saying the evidence showed there were armed militiamen in the buildings, not unarmed men at prayer as Shi’ite clerics have insisted.

“This complex is an old school complex, I believe to hold, among other things, the hostage ring, people who grab people off the street for money,” said Marine Gen. Peter Pace, pointing to a blown-up photograph of a group of buildings.

“This operation clearly was designed to go after a believed location of a kidnapping ring,” said Gen. Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Iraqis contacted by telephone in Baghdad said Shi’ites were furious over the operation in Sadr City — a poor, predominantly Shi’ite area that is home to the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Sheik al-Sadr, and the powerful Badr Brigades, the armed wing of the political party of the Supreme Council of Islamic Resistance in Iraq.

“The Iraqi people are angry about this Shi’ite mosque, they are angry at the American forces [and] accuse the Americans of killing Shi’ite people,” said one young businessman who would give his name only as Ahmed.

Conflicting accounts of Sunday night’s gunfight continued, with U.S. and Iraqi officials unable to agree even whether the scene of the conflict was a mosque.

Gen. Pace said Iraqi special forces, backed by U.S. special forces, found bomb parts, rocket-propelled grenades and a hostage when they entered the complex, which included a building that held a small minaret and prayer room. He told reporters he did not know whether people were killed in the prayer room.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, referring to a photograph of the weapons, said, “Those are not religious instruments.” He added that the Iraqi forces found two men with traces of explosives on their fingers.

Residents of Sadr City claimed that the Iraqi army special operations unit that conducted the raid was an all-Kurdish unit drawn from the fierce Kurdish Peshmerga militia.

Usually very outspoken, Sheik al-Sadr has not made any public statements on the raid.

One Sunni leader close to the talks on the formation of a new government said that Iraqi Shi’ite leaders, who suspended their participation in the negotiations on Monday, had returned to the table.

“Today they were sent back and there was a good four-hour negotiation, so it seems they are going ahead with the political process,” said Ala’a Makky of the Iraqi Islamic Party. He said the special forces raid might have been designed to send a message to Shi’ite leaders that militia killings had to stop.

“Let me tell you that one of the main issues of the coming government is to abolish the militias and dissolve all the militias so the government can work nationally without any sectarian divisions,” Mr. Makky said.

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