American attacks on Mehdi Army cause uproar among Shia

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US forces in Iraq have launched a series of bloody attacks on Shia militia forces in and around Baghdad, killing or wounding 30 fighters and provoking widespread anger in the Shia community.

Iraqi government security forces, backed by the US troops and aircraft, moved into the vast Shia slum of al-Sadr City in eastern Baghdad at 3.15am yesterday in an attempt to arrest a commander of the Mehdi Army, the main Shia militia, called Abu Diraa. Iraqi police said nine people were killed including a woman. An Iraqi officer said the Americans had provided lists of people to be arrested in al-Sadr City.

The US army in Iraq is evidently starting a new confrontation with the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, which now controls much of Baghdad. Its militiamen have grown in number over the last year as Shia civilians look for protection against Sunni assassins and death squads. "Muqtada is taking over the city," said one Shia yesterday.

At one spot on the Tigris river in al-Qadamiyah in northern Baghdad some 10 to 12 headless bodies, most of which were later identified as Shia, are being washed up every day, said a local source. "In once case, a newly married husband and wife had been tied together before being killed," he said. "In another case a man's head had been cut off and the head of a dog loosely sewn on to his neck."

Much of Baghdad, particularly mixed Sunni-Shia districts, are now embroiled in a sectarian civil war. The Shia allege that the US is reaching out to Sunni insurgents who formerly attacked American troops but are now killing Shia.

Sunni fighters operating from an area called al-Muheet, a district of old brick factories now used for residential housing, have killed many Shia from nearby farming districts. "One of them was a man called Hussein who used to sell me melons," said a local informant. "They cut his head off." In the past few days three women were allegedly raped and killed.

This provoked a backlash in the heavily Shia al-Khadamiyah, the site of one of the holiest Shia shrines. Some 400 local people joined with the Mehdi Army yesterday to launch an attack on al-Muheet, starting a gun battle which lasted much of the day. The Shia claim that US troops intervened to stop them eliminating sectarian killers. Over the past nine months, the powerful US envoy in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, has shifted American policy towards the five million-strong Sunni Arab community. He has backed their participation in government and sought to open communications with Sunni insurgent groups. The US fought hard during the first six months of this year to get rid of the former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and his interior minister Bayan Jabr, who were accused of overt sectarianism. But many Shia see the US as, in practice, trying to keep them away from real political power though they won two elections last year and make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population.

"This is a big escalation from the American side," said Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, an aide to Mr Sadr, the nationalist Shia cleric whose men twice fought the US in 2004. Speaking after the attack on al-Sadr City, he said 11 people had been killed and dozens wounded as US jets fired on the area while they slept on their rooftops to escape the heat. An Iraqi army officer said troops had failed to find Mr Diraa, the militia leader, while the US said it had captured an insurgent commander.

In another sign of growing US confrontation with the Mehdi Army, one of its commanders, Adnan al-Unaybi, was arrested by US and Iraqi forces at Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad.

The Sunni community is also frightened of attacks by Shia death squads operating through the police, Mehdi Army or Badr Organisation. Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Sammarai, the head of the Sunni Endowment, responsible for Sunni mosques and shrines, said that 181 Sunni imams had been killed since Saddam Hussein was ousted in March 2003.

In the first years of the post-Saddam era, the Shia were restrained by their leaders from retaliating for attacks against them. From May 2005, when they took over the government, the Shia began to organise their own death squads and, ever since the bomb attack against the Shia shrine at Sammara on 22 February 2006, they have engaged in full-scale sectarian civil war. Some 1,500 bodies of Iraqis who died violently were delivered to the Baghdad mortuary in June.

Only a minority of sectarian attacks are reported and these are mostly in central Baghdad. Some 11 people are known to have died in attacks on mosques after Friday prayers yesterday. Five people were killed and nine wounded by a mortar attack and a car bomb near two Sunni mosques in Baghdad. A blast in a Shia district killed six and wounded 45, according to police.

The US-directed assault on al-Sadr City and the attempted capture of Abu Diraa could be connected with the kidnapping of Taiseer al-Mashhadani, a Sunni woman member of parliament who was kidnapped in a Shia district along with seven bodyguards. Her colleagues allege that Shia militiamen were behind her seizure.

The new government of Nuri al-Maliki, installed after months of wrangling, is so far proving as ineffective as its predecessor at curbing the sectarian civil war. Despite promises to bring order to Basra, the second city of Iraq, it still remains in the hands of Shia militiamen. The militias are growing stronger because Shia and Sunni see them as the only defence against sectarian killers against whom the US troops, the Iraqi army and the police are considered useless.

Although Maliki pledged to dissolve the militias, he has made no effort to do so and he does not have the strength to do so. His own party, the Dawa, is one of the few not to have its own militia. The current government, dominated by the Shia and the Kurds, largely consists of parties that have powerful militia forces. Kurdish leaders say that the army would dissolve into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish components as soon as a full civil war breaks out. Already Sunni districts in Baghdad like al-Adhamiyah open fire if police, deemed to be Shia, try to enter. Al-Sadr City is equally hostile to the Iraqi army sending units into its districts.

The US army is masking the fact that it is increasingly at war with the Iraqi Shia militias by referring to both Sunni and Shia as insurgents. Thus, after the raid into al-Sadr City, the US military said in a statement: "The captured individual heads multiple insurgent cells in Baghdad whose main focus is to conduct attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces." This conceals the fact that the US is fighting the Mehdi Army, which is controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr, whose party is an important part of the Iraqi government.