- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi forces killed 13 gunmen in clashes and air strikes Friday night and early yesterday in the Baghdad stronghold of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who said the United States would remain his enemy until the “last drop of my blood.”

Iraqi police said seven civilians also died in fighting, which tapered off yesterday.

The U.S. military said an American soldier was killed in a blast yesterday morning in northwestern Baghdad. The death raised the number of American troops killed in Iraq since last Sunday to at least 19.

Authorities eased a blockade yesterday in the Sadr City district of eastern Baghdad that had trapped residents in the battle zone slum for two weeks.

Gunfire was audible and some roads remained closed, but cars were allowed in and out of some entrances to the slum — home to 2 million Shi’ites and power base of Sheik al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.

Army patrols warned residents via loudspeakers to keep off the streets, saying the rebels had planted roadside bombs that needed to be cleared by the security forces.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Mark Cheadle said a U.S. convoy was struck by at least 10 roadside bombs while moving to help Iraqi troops overnight in western Sadr City.

U.S. forces fired at least one Hellfire missile from a drone aircraft and two rounds from the main battle gun of an M1 tank at fighters who targeted them with roadside bombs, rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the military said.

The Washington Times, quoting Baghdad residents, reported April 5 that militiamen loyal to Sheik al-Sadr were positioning explosives along Sadr City streets in anticipation of a major battle, and residents were stocking up on food and essentials for a prolonged blockade.

Several hundred people have died in clashes between Sheik al-Sadr’s followers and U.S. and Iraqi forces since late March, when Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a crackdown on the militia in the southern city of Basra.

Sheik al-Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets March 30, but the showdown has continued in his Baghdad stronghold, turning Sadr City into a key front in the five-year-old war.

Residents described the night’s clashes as among the worst since Iraqi forces launched an offensive into the area a week ago.

A Reuters correspondent who spent the night inside Sadr City said U.S. helicopters and jets flew overhead before midnight and several of the aircraft could be seen firing missiles.

The sound of heavy gunfire erupted in several parts of the neighborhood and fighters could be seen on the streets carrying rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns into battle.

Reacting to the upsurge in violence, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates appeared to reach out to Sheik al-Sadr on Friday, saying the cleric would not be treated as an enemy if he played a peaceful role in Iraqi politics.

Sheik al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, responded yesterday by calling Mr. Gates a “terrorist” and accusing the U.S. of bombarding Iraq’s cities.

“You [infidels] will always be an enemy and you will remain so until the last drop of my blood,” Sheik al-Sadr said in a statement issued by his office in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf.

“If you don’t withdraw from our land or set a timetable for withdrawal acceptable to the Iraqi people, we will resist in the way we see fit.”

Despite the strident rhetoric, there were signs that Sheik al-Sadr was trying to calm his militia to avoid all-out war with the Americans. He is also under pressure from Mr. al-Maliki, also a Shi’ite, to disband the Mahdi Army or face a ban from politics.

Sadrist officials told the Associated Press they had received orders from their headquarters in Najaf to avoid confrontations with Iraqi and U.S. forces unless the Americans try to move deep into Sadr City.

The officials said the Sadrist leadership was concerned that the ongoing clashes were turning into a war of attrition that was weakening the movement and undermining support within its Shi’ite power base.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to discuss policy with outsiders.

Elsewhere, Iraqi soldiers acting on tips from detained Shi’ite militiamen found 14 bodies that had been buried in a field south of Baghdad, officials said. It was the second discovery in a week of mass graves in the area, raising to 45 the number of bodies located there.


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