- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

BAGHDAD — American and British forces battled Mahdi’s Army fighters in Baghdad and Basra yesterday as the U.S. military announced the deaths of eight more troops.

The renewed fighting occurred after the Mahdi’s Army leader, Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, used a rare public appearance to call on U.S. troops to get out of Iraq.

Five gunmen were killed in an air strike during a pre-dawn raid yesterday in the cleric’s Sadr City stronghold in Baghdad, the U.S. military said. A militant leader suspected of ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards was captured.

In the southern oil hub of Basra, the British military said “a number” of militia fighters were killed in an air strike overnight after they attacked British troops with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns.

Separately, eight more U.S. troops were reported killed in five separate attacks stretching back to Wednesday, taking the toll for May to 101 and setting the month on course to be the bloodiest this year for the U.S. military. A total of 104 were killed in April.

The U.S. military has said it expected more casualties as it pours thousands of extra troops into Baghdad and other areas in a security crackdown aimed at dragging Iraq back from the brink of sectarian civil war between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunnis.

In the worst attack, three soldiers were killed and two others were wounded when their patrol was hit by an explosion in Salahaddin province north of Baghdad yesterday.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, traveled together to the western Anbar province yesterday to highlight gains there in the fight against insurgents, the Associated Press reported.

They had planned to travel to al-Qaim, an Anbar town on the Syrian border, to meet with tribal leaders and survey a $20 million border terminal under construction. But low visibility prevented their aircraft from completing the trip, and they could only reach the al-Asad air base in Anbar.

The U.S. military said the militant leader detained in the Sadr City raid in Baghdad was “suspected of … acting as a proxy for an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps officer” and was part of a network that organized training for militants in Iran.

The five suspected gunmen were killed when an air strike hit a column of nine vehicles that were positioning themselves to ambush U.S. and Iraqi troops, the military said.

But Sadr City residents and police said the cars had been lined up at a gas station. A reporter counted at least 11 burned-out vehicles about half a mile from the station. Lengthy gas lines are common in Iraq.

The Basra attacks were believed to be in retaliation for the killing of the top Mahdi’s Army commander in the city on Friday by British-backed Iraqi special forces, the British military said.

A reporter saw eight coffins at a funeral for those killed in Basra. A hospital official said 22 others had been wounded. Residents said a helicopter had attacked a group of civilians protesting against the death of the Mahdi’s Army leader.

The fighting occurred a day after Sheik al-Sadr appeared in public for the first time in months and repeated his demand for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.

U.S. officials have said Sheik al-Sadr was hiding in Iran, but his aides say he never left Iraq. Analysts have speculated he had come back to reassert his authority over his militia, which the U.S. military says has begun fragmenting into splinter groups.

On Friday, Sheik al-Sadr sought to paint himself as a nationalist leader, offering to work with Sunnis, calling on his militiamen to stop fighting Iraqi forces, and criticizing the al-Maliki government for not providing security and basic services.

Sheik al-Sadr led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. His political movement holds 30 seats in parliament and is part of the ruling Shi’ite alliance.

Sheik al-Sadr’s return occurred in advance of rare talks between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq tomorrow on how to stabilize the country. The United States accuses Iran of fueling sectarian violence with its support for Shi’ite militias such as Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army. Tehran denies the charge.

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