Coalition forces clash with Mehdi Army

139.jpgBAGHDAD (AFP) — US and British forces on Saturday clashed with Moqtada  Sadr’s supporters in Baghdad and Basra, even as Iraq’s politicians cautiously welcomed the radical Shiite cleric’s return to the political scene.US-led forces seized a suspected militant with ties to Iran and killed five others in an early morning raid in the cleric’s Mehdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, the US military said.

The man detained had been “acting as a proxy for an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officer”, and smuggling armour-piercing bombs to local militias, it charged in a statement.

It added that five people were killed in an air strike on nine vehicles that had moved into the area following the arrest in an apparent attempt to ambush the troops taking part in the raid.

An Iraqi security official, however, said the cars hit in the air strike had been waiting in front of a petrol station, a common scene in a city where lines often stretch for several blocks, and that several houses were destroyed.

Meanwhile, in Basra, a coalition jet strafed militia positions killing several Mehdi Army gunmen who had bombarded a British base in retaliation for the death of one of their commanders on Friday.

British forces attacked one militia position with a fighter jet but had no immediate word on casualties, according to a statement, but Iraqi police Captain Hassan Ali said the raid killed three people and wounded seven.

According to Sadr supporter Adnan Sailawi, eight people were killed and 22 wounded when the British aircraft attacked a group of men standing outside a Shiite prayer hall in the early hours of the morning.

Sadr and his top lieutenants had previously opted to lie low during the increased US-Iraqi security operations over past months. But leaders from both sides of Iraq’s communal divide said they hoped the firebrand cleric’s return would give a boost to national reconcilation efforts and bring his powerful but increasingly fractured militia under firmer control.

“The return of Moqtada Sadr is necessary at this juncture… because his ability to give orders to his followers in person will calm the political and security situation,” said Shiite MP Abbas Bayati.

Sunni politician Ayad Sammaraie echoed that view. “His existence inside Iraq will help keep his supporters following this policy,” he said. “We welcome his call for national reconciliation.”

Sadr resurfaced at his mosque in Kufa on Friday after several months in hiding and delivered a sermon condemning the occupation of Iraq while at the same time insisting that the nation’s fractured population had to co-exist. His Mehdi Army has been implicated in the wave of sectarian killing that has swept the country since the destruction of a Shiite shrine in February 2006, although Sadr has blamed the killings on groups outside of his control.

In his comeback address on Friday, the cleric appealed to Sunnis and Shiites to unite in the face of the US-led military presence which has become widely unpopolar in both communities.In December, a US military report identified the Mehdi Army and other Shiite militias it accused of sectarian cleansing as the biggest threat to Iraq’s stability. With much of the movement laying low during the US-Iraqi security crackdown in the capital, the military has returned to describing Al Qaeda as the number one threat.

“Now that he’s back … we hope he’ll play a useful and positive role in the development of Iraq,” White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said on Friday. Despite the four-month-old security crackdown in Baghdad, sectarian clashes are on the rise again in many parts of the city. There have been reports of renewed efforts to drive out the remaining Sunnis from the mainly Shiite district of Bayaa, which have prompted revenge attacks against Shiite civilians by Sunni insurgents.

A series of mortar attacks and explosions there on Saturday killed at least nine people and about 40 wounded, hospital and security officials said.

The Baghdad crackdown has also fuelled record US casualties, with more than 90 personnel killed in May alone. The military said two soldiers and a marine were killed on Friday, raising US losses since the 2003 invasion to 3,445.

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