Fierce clashes kill 38 in Baghdad's Sadr City
Tuesday, 29 April 2008

AFP, BAGHDAD - Fierce clashes between Shiite militiamen and US and Iraqi forces in east Baghdad killed at least 38 people, the American military said on Monday, amid new political efforts to end the bloodletting.

Sunday's heaviest fighting in weeks came on a day when militiamen blasted Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone with rockets and mortars, taking advantage of a blinding dust storm that grounded US attack helicopters.

The biggest clash in the day-long battles came at dusk on Sunday when "a large group of criminals engaging with small-arms fire" attacked a security force checkpoint, a US military statement said. "US soldiers used 120 mm fire from M1A12 Abrams tanks and small-arms fire to kill ... 22 criminals, forcing remaining enemy forces present to retreat," the military said.

Abbas Abdul Hussein, a resident of Sadr City who witnessed the attack, said it had come at the height of the sandstorm. "The militiamen took advantage of the storm. They knew there were no helicopters watching them, so they attacked US troops near the checkpoint," said Hussein.

At about the same time, seven fighters who ambushed a patrol were killed by US troops. Other gunmen died in various skirmishes during the day when troops retaliated after being attacked with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, the military said.

Most of the fighting took place in Sadr City, the Baghdad bastion of the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who claim they are being deliberately targeted.

US and Iraqi commanders say they are trying to halt rocket attacks from Sadr City on the Green Zone, where the Iraqi government and US embassy are based, by Iranian-backed militiamen using Iranian-supplied weaponry. Tehran strongly denies any involvement.

The Green Zone was hit by waves of rockets and mortar rounds on Sunday evening, but there were no immediate reports of casualties. The latest deaths bring to around 440 the number of militiamen and civilians killed in a month of clashes in Sadr City, where violence erupted after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a countrywide crackdown on militias on March 25, starting in the southern oil city of Basra.

At least 15 US soldiers have died in Baghdad since the clashes began. Sadr's office in the shrine city of Najaf said new efforts were being brokered by President Jalal Talabani to try "to end the crisis between the Sadr movement and the government."

The meeting would see Talabani acting as mediator between government and Sadrist representatives, according to Sadr's spokesman in Najaf, Salah al-Obeidi. "We are looking for assurances that the government will commit itself to the agreements.

The government reneged on its commitments under the previous agreement," Obeidi told AFP. He was referring to a deal struck late last month under which Sadr agreed to call his fighters off the streets in return for the government ending random raids and military assaults on Mahdi Army fighters.

Sadr's group rejected Maliki's conditions for an end to the fighting late on Sunday. "We say the crisis can be resolved by objective dialogue," Obeidi said. Maliki laid down four conditions for an end to the military onslaught against the Mahdi Army in an interview with Al-Arabiya television on Saturday.

These were that all heavy and medium weapons be handed in, that there be no further interference in the work of government departments or the police and army, and that wanted suspects be turned in. Meanwhile, Sunni loyalists of executed dictator Saddam Hussein celebrated the anniversary of his birth by his grave in his native village of Awja near the central city of Tikrit on Monday. "Our love for Saddam and our loyalty to him inspired us to celebrate.

We wish that we could celebrate every day to remember him," said Mahmud al-Tikriti, 35, the caretaker of the hall which houses Saddam's tomb. Saddam was hanged on December 30, 2006, for crimes against humanity.

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