Mortars or rockets hit Iraq Green Zone
Monday, 25 February 2008

Associated Press . Baghdad

Rockets or mortars hit the U.S.-protected Green Zone early Saturday, just a day after powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militia to extend its cease-fire by another six months.

Nearly 10 blasts could be heard in the sprawling area along the River Tigris that houses the US and British embassies, the Iraqi government headquarters and thousands of American troops.

It was not immediately clear whether there were casualties. Major Brad Leighton, a US military spokesman, confirmed the Green Zone was hit by indirect fire — the military's term for a rocket or mortar attack — but could not provide more details.

It was the fourth time this week that US outposts in Baghdad appeared to be the targets of rocket or mortar attacks. At least six people have been killed. The flurry of attacks followed a substantial lull in such violence as security has increased in the capital over the last half-year.

Earlier in the week, the US military blamed Iranian-backed Shia militias that have broken away from al-Sadr's block for the rocket attacks. Iran denies that it sponsors extremists in Iraq. As the US praised al-Sadr for extending his ceasefire, it also pledged to pursue the breakaway militias.

'Those who dishonour the Sadr pledge are regrettably tarnishing both the name and the honour of the movement,' it said. The Al-Sadr ceasefire was extended until the 15th of Shaban, a reference to the Islamic month before Ramadan, which would mean mid-August.

Along with an increase in US troop levels and a move by Sunni fighters to turn against their former al-Qaeda in Iraq allies, the cease-fire has been credited with reducing war deaths among Iraqis by nearly 70 percent in six months, according to figures compiled by the agency. Extending it has several advantages for al-Sadr, who launched two major uprisings against coalition forces in 2004.

It enables al-Sadr to present himself as a shrewd political figure interested in reducing violence for all Iraqis and perhaps as a more popular alternative to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the country's largest Shia party and a US partner. It also makes al-Sadr a player that the US must handle respectfully while he keeps the peace.

Al-Sadr's announcement came two years to the day since the bombing of a revered Shia mosque in Samarra that unleashed Mahdi Army fury. Most Iraqis are now loathe to return to the worst days of sectarian violence when the monthly body count sometimes topped 3,000. Separately, the head of the Iraqi Journalists Union was shot and wounded Saturday.

Union chief Shihab al-Timimi was attacked by gunmen as he was being driven to an art gallery in Waziriya, near central Baghdad, police and union officials said. He had just left the nearby union headquarters. AP Television News footage showed him with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the chest and bandaged shoulders and arms.

Al-Timimi, who is in his mid-70s, was elected president of the union in 2004. A boat carrying 11 Shia to the holy city of Karbala overturned in the River Tigris and six people drowned, police said.

The pilgrims were headed to Karbala for Arbaeen, which marks the 40th day following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, one of Shiism's major figures who is buried there.

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