BAGHDAD — U.S. warplanes blasted a militia team firing rocket-propelled grenades yesterday, the second day of heavy fighting in a major offensive to drive Shi’ite Mahdi Army militiamen out of Diwaniyah, a farm-belt city south of Baghdad.
North of the capital, in the increasingly dangerous Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba, police reported 21 more bodies dumped in the streets, victims of the intense sectarian warfare. All were shot execution-style and many had been tortured. At least 62 bodies have been found in or near Baqouba since Tuesday.
A total of 58 persons were killed or found dead across Iraq yesterday in the eighth week of the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown on the capital and surrounding cities and towns.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, meanwhile, said government officials from Iraq’s neighbors, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and representatives of the Group of Eight industrialized nations would meet in Egypt early next month.
The session — originally set for Istanbul — is a follow-up to the international conference held in Baghdad last month during which envoys from Iran and the U.S. spoke directly for the first time in years.
The Egyptian meeting will be held at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik on May 3 and 4, Mr. Zebari said.
Maj. Gen. Othman Farhood al-Ghanemi, commander of the Iraqi army’s 8th Division, said the U.S.-Iraqi operation to retake Diwaniyah took shape after a three-month crescendo of violence in which at least 58 persons were killed or kidnapped.
In violence leading up to the offensive, many women were reportedly killed after the hard-line fundamentalist militiamen accused them of violating their strict interpretation of Islamic morality.
Gen. al-Ghanemi told the Associated Press that Mahdi Army militiamen were armed with rocket-propelled grenades, Katyusha rockets, Strela anti-aircraft rockets and AK-47 assault rifles.
The militia is loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Before the offensive, militants attacked Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces 17 times with roadside bombs — some of them armor-piercing explosively formed projectiles (EFP).
The U.S. military accuses Iran of providing militants with the deadly projectiles.
“Although the army now is in the city, gunmen still have an armed presence. This will take time to finish. We are backed by friendly multinational forces, and had it not been for them, we would not have been able to detect and dismantle so many roadside bombs today,” the general said.
Gen. al-Ghanemi said the tipping point in Diwaniyah was March 20, when militiamen attacked and set fire to police roadblocks in 15 southeast neighborhoods and turned them into no-go zones for the authorities.
Much of the Diwaniyah police force is said to be controlled by the Badr Brigade, a rival militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country’s most powerful Shi’ite political party.
Police were ordered off the streets yesterday and some residents said the Iraqi military did not trust them. But Sadiq Jaafar, the city police chief, said his men were sent indoors because they were too poorly equipped to be of use in the fighting.
An Iraqi army official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to release the figures, said three civilians and three Mahdi Army fighters died in the battle yesterday. At least 29 persons were wounded — 21 civilians, six Iraqi soldiers and two American soldiers.
The army official said U.S. and Iraqi forces captured 36 militiamen.
In its account of the second day of fighting, the U.S. military reported only one Iraqi death, that of the militiaman hit in the air strike. It said three U.S. soldiers received minor cuts in a roadside bombing that destroyed their Humvee.
The U.S.-Iraqi drive into Diwaniyah — named “Operation Black Eagle” — began before dawn Friday.
Many of the Diwaniyah fighters were thought to have left Baghdad and were using the American preoccupation with the capital to cement their hold on parts of the southern city.
Sheik al-Sadr’s office in Diwaniyah said militia fighters had destroyed three American vehicles and seized a robot used to explode roadside bombs.
Diwaniyah sits on a Euphrates River tributary and in some of Iraq’s most fertile farmland. The predominantly Shi’ite city, 80 miles south of Baghdad, has two major factories, one that makes automobile batteries and a second producing tires. The population is between 400,000 and 500,000.
In Baghdad, two U.S. soldiers were killed and seven were wounded in two separate roadside bombs attacks. One attack employed an EFP, which hurls a molten, fist-sized copper slug capable of piercing armored vehicles.