DIWANIYA, Iraq, (Reuters) – Iraqi and U.S. forces clashed with Shi’ite militia loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Friday in a dawn operation aimed at returning the volatile city of Diwaniya to government control.
In Ramadi, west of Baghdad, a truck bomb killed at least 10 people and wounded 24 in the latest in a string of attacks that have spewed poisonous chlorine gas into the air, three Iraqi police officers said. A fourth officer put the toll at 35 dead.
The Iraqi government said this week it was extending a seven-week old U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in Baghdad to other cities as it seeks to halt the slide to sectarian civil war.
While the crackdown has succeeded in reducing the murder rate in Baghdad, the government says militants forced out of the capital have turned other areas into new “killing fields”.
Iraqi and U.S. troops fought militiamen in southeast Diwaniya, a stronghold of Sadr’s Mehdi Army, which the Pentagon says poses the greatest threat to peace in Iraq. The head of Sadr’s office in the city blamed rogue gunmen.
Pamphlets dropped by U.S. helicopters warned police, who are suspected of being infiltrated by the militia, to stay off the streets. Any found carrying weapons would be shot.
A U.S. military spokesman said three to six “enemy fighters” were killed, five wounded and 17 captured. U.S. and Iraqi forces suffered no fatalities, he said.
A Mehdi Army leader said six women and children were wounded when a U.S. helicopter fired on a hostel in the city. Bleichwehl said the report was untrue. The militia leader also said four men on motorbikes were shot dead by U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Resident Qassim Abid said he saw two armoured vehicles damaged by roadside bombs and a third by rocket-propelled grenades. There was no independent confirmation.
The director of Diwaniya’s health directorate, Hameed Jaati, said the local hospital had received one body and 15 wounded. “Iraqi army soldiers swept into the city of Diwaniya early this morning to disrupt militia activity and return security and stability of the volatile city back to the government of Iraq,” the U.S. military said in a statement.
Bleichwehl said troops, facing scattered resistance, discovered a factory that produced “explosively formed penetrators” (EFPs), a particularly deadly type of explosive that can destroy a main battle tank and several weapons caches.
Residents said a curfew had been imposed as troops blocked streets and conducted house-to-house searches. “It is good they have started this operation because we have been living in fear recently,” said Ali Hassan, 45, a worker with seven children. “We could not go out after dark or allow our children to go outside on their own.”
In Ramadi, capital of western Anbar province that is the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency, police colonel Tareq al-Dulaimi said the chlorine truck bomb targeted a police patrol, killing 35 people and wounding at least 45 more.
But Captain Louay al-Dulaimi and two colleagues from a police station near the explosion put the death toll at 10.
There has been a spate of chlorine truck bomb attacks, mainly in Anbar. U.S. commanders and Iraqi police have blamed al Qaeda militants for several of the attacks.
Police in Basra indicated an explosion that destroyed a British armoured fighting vehicle, killing four soldiers and a translator on Thursday, was caused by a new type of bomb. “We found two bombs … that were similar to the bomb that exploded targeting the British troops,” Major General Mohammed Moussawi told Reuters. “These are new bombs that haven’t been used and do not have a precedent in southern Iraq.”
The bomb blast left a crater several metres (yards) across and a metre deep in the road.
U.S. and British forces have accused neighbouring Shi’ite Iran of supplying Shi’ite militias with EFPs, which are normally placed on the side of the road and fire a metal projectile embedded in the device into the target at high speed.
But a Western explosives expert in Iraq said it appeared from photographs of the crater that the blast had been caused by a commercial landmine buried in the road, not by an EFP.