'Leading militant captured' after Sadr City battle

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The Independent Online

Iraqi forces backed by US aircraft battled militants in a Shia stronghold of eastern Baghdad early today, killing or wounding more than 30 fighters and capturing an extremist leader who was the target of the raid, Iraqi and US officials said.

In another operation, Iraqi troops backed by US soldiers arrested a top regional commander of a Shia militia near Hillah, a US statement said. The moves appeared part of a crackdown on sectarian militias blamed for the escalation in Shiite-Sunni violence that has led to fears of civil war.

The US military said the raid in eastern Baghdad was launched to apprehend "an insurgent leader responsible for numerous deaths of Iraqi citizens".

Iraqi troops came under fire from a rooftop, triggering a 43-minute gun battle after which the insurgent leader was arrested, the US said. There were no US or Iraqi casualties, the Americans said.

US officials did not identify the insurgent but residents of the Shiite slum Sadr City said he was Abu Diraa, a commander in the Mahdi militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The US statement said the insurgent was involved "in the transfer of weapons from Syria into Iraq" in an effort to break away "from his current insurgent organisation".

The statement made no mention of any US role, but residents said they could hear American aircraft providing cover during the raid.

In a statement yesterday, the US said Iraqi and US forces arrested Adnan al-Unaybi, commander of a Mahdi militia force south of Baghdad. The statement said he was arrested north of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

An al-Sadr aide, Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, denounced the Baghdad raid, saying 11 civilians were killed and dozens wounded as US jets fired on the area as people were sleeping on their roofs amid searing summer temperatures and electricity shortages.

"This is a big escalation from the American side," he said. "I condemn all the silence toward such violations and I call for the withdrawal of the American forces."

There were conflicting casualty figures. Lt. Kadim Abbas Hamza of the Sadr City police said fighter planes also fired from the air at about 3.15am and nine people, including a woman, were killed and 14 were wounded. He also said eight people were arrested. A hospital official said seven people were killed and 34 wounded.

An Iraqi officer with the army division responsible for the Baghdad area said the Americans had provided them with a list of names of people to be arrested in Sadr City. Iraqi soldiers led the raid while the Americans played a supportive role, but nobody was arrested because of the clashes, the officer said.

The early morning raid also came as security forces were searching for Sunni politician Tayseer al-Mashhadani, who was abducted by gunmen in a nearby Shiite area nearly a week ago.

The al-Sadr aide said the group had condemned the kidnapping and denied the cleric's followers or members of the Mahdi army were linked to it.

AP Television News footage showed a burned out long tent in the area of Sadr City where the raid occurred, with dishes still stacked on the ground, while photos showed women holding up colourful blankets with big holes in them.

US and Iraqi forces also staged a raid in the area in late March, with the Americans saying 16 "insurgents" were killed and police saying 22 people were killed.

Witnesses of today's attack also said warplanes fired on the area, wounding some people who were sleeping on the roof, a common practice amid searing temperatures and electricity shortages in Iraq. The US statement did not mention American involvement or any casualties.