- The Washington Times - Monday, April 28, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Shi’ite extremists lobbed more rockets or mortar shells at the U.S. protected Green Zone today as American and Iraqi troops engaged militants in the most violent clashes in weeks in Baghdad.

Abrams tanks were used to repel attacks on two army checkpoints, killing 22 militants in one clash late yesterday, the U.S. military said today. Sixteen other militants were killed yesterday in separate firefights.

The militants apparently were taking advantage of a sandstorm that blanketed the capital yesterday, which enabled them to shell the Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government on the west side of the Tigris River.

Alarms could be heard again today as loudspeakers warned residents to take cover and stay away from windows.

The U.S. Embassy today confirmed the area was hit by indirect fire, the military’s term for rocket or mortar attacks, and said there were “no reports of serious injury or deaths at this time.”

While the sandstorm eased, the militants continued to benefit from low visibility that gave cover from attack by U.S. aircraft, which were grounded until this morning.

Col. John Hort — who commands a U.S. Army base on the southern edge of Sadr City, the main stronghold of anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia — attributed yesterday’s barrage to the thick dust kicked up by the storm.

This sharply degrades the performance of sensors and targeting lasers mounted on helicopters and unmanned drones.

He said 17 of the rounds that hit the Green Zone yesterday were fired from Sadr City.

“Otherwise, we’ve had pretty good success in decreasing the attacks using Predator and Shadow (drones) and Apache helicopters over the past month,” he said.

Hort said the militants used to be able to fire four to six rockets in a single salvo. But because of the quick reaction of the drones and choppers, they have less time for launching, which has restricted their fire to single-rocket launches, he said.

In Sadr City, four Iraqi policemen were wounded when Katyusha rockets slammed into a building housing Iraqi and U.S. forces, police said. A mortar attack targeting a U.S. military headquarters injured three civilians in the eastern Baladiyat area, police said.

Meanwhile, a suicide attacker on a motorcycle struck a checkpoint manned by U.S.-allied Sunni fighters in eastern Baghdad, killing at least one and wounding four other members of the awakening council, police added.

Also today, gunmen killed a local commander of al-Sadr, Ali Ghalib in the southern city of Basra, police said.

The fighting has escalated as al-Sadr’s movement rejected terms set by the Iraqi government for lifting a crackdown against his Mahdi Army militia.

He also has threatened to launch an “open war” against the U.S.-led foreign troops — a move that would lift a nearly eight-month-old cease-fire and jeopardize recent security gains.

In a step to avoid a full-blown confrontation with the government, al-Sadr on Friday called for an end to Iraqi bloodshed. But the attacks against Iraqi military checkpoints yesterday suggested that patience was running thin within the ranks of the Mahdi Army.

American commanders have blamed what they call Iranian-backed Shi’ite factions they say have broken with a cease-fire imposed by al-Sadr in late August.

The clashes yesterday were concentrated in Sadr City, the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, where U.S. soldiers used Abrams main battle tanks to repel the attackers.

The American and Iraqi soldiers came under attack “by a large group of criminals,” the U.S. military said in a statement.

Fifty-eight people, including five children and eight women, were injured in clashes in Sadr City since yesterday, local health officials said today.

The U.S. military yesterday claimed success with operations that have effectively sealed off the southern section of Baghdad’s Sadr City, a militia stronghold that is believed to be one of the prime launching sites for the Green Zone attacks.

The Green Zone has been regularly shelled since fighting broke out over a U.S.-backed government crackdown against militias that began in late March. American commanders have blamed what they call Iranian-backed Shi’ite factions they say have broken with a cease-fire imposed by al-Sadr in late August.

Yesterday, Al-Sadr’s spokesman in the holy city of Najaf called the Shi’ite-led government’s terms for ceasing the crackdown against the militias “illogical.”

Salah al-Obeidi accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself a Shi’ite, of wanting to resolve the problem by force instead of dialogue. Chief among al-Maliki’s demands announced Friday were that the militias surrender heavy weapons and hand over all wanted people.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the Iraqi military spokesman for Baghdad operations, yesterday said the government would maintain the crackdown.

Associated Press writers Slobodan Lekic and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.

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