BAGHDAD (AP) – Suspected Shiite extremists harassed U.S. forces with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, but the U.S. military on Saturday reported a relative lull in fighting a day after a radical Shiite cleric said his threat of an “open war” applied only to American forces.
Still, at least eight Iraqis were killed on Friday and 12 others were injured on Saturday in sporadic clashes in the sprawling slum district of Sadr City, a stronghold of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, officials said. No U.S. or Iraqi troop casualties were reported.
The injured in Sadr City included a schoolboy wounded by a stray bullet that pierced his school bag, health officials said. Elsewhere in Baghdad, eight people, including five policemen, were injured in separate attacks, officials said.
The lull in fighting came after Al-Sadr on Friday called for an end to Iraqi bloodshed and said his threat of an “open war” applied only to U.S.-led foreign troops, apparently avoiding a full-scale war against the government.
Al-Sadr’s appeal won support of some residents of Sadr City who also have been facing shortages of food and supplies.
“He wants this city to be stable taking into consideration that the people are suffering from the deteriorating situation and from escalating prices,” said 42-year-old Naji Mohammed, a father of three. “In general, people in Sadr City are very happy about this decision. I think Mahdi Army elements are also happy about it, but till now the situation has not changed yet in Sadr City.”
Other residents were worried about factions within the Mahdi Army who may not be willing to observe the cease-fire. U.S. authorities claim that “special forces” trained by Iran are operating within the ranks of the Mahdi Army.
“I am afraid that some ill-intentioned groups of Mahdi Army who are disloyal to (al-Sadr) will not respect this decision.” said Ayad Muhsen, 21, a college student. Al-Sadr’s militia have clashed daily with U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces since al-Maliki launched a crackdown against the militias a month ago. Last week, al-Sadr issued what he called a “final warning” to the Shiite-led government to halt its offensive or face an “open war until liberation.”
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday set conditions for calling off the crackdown against the Mahdi army and other militias. Principal among them is the unconditional handover of weapons.
Although, al-Sadr did not directly order his followers to escalate attacks against U.S.-led forces, gunmen continued to harass U.S. troops with shoulder-fired rockets and roadside bombs. But there were no major engagements that required the intervention of U.S. helicopter gunships, said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, military spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad.
“We had no airstrikes last night. There were no major engagements last night. It was fairly quiet,” he said. During the past month, the Mahdi army has regularly lobbed rockets and mortar shells at the fortified Green Zone that houses foreign embassies and the Iraqi government. But the U.S.-led forces said they have largely pushed them out of effective range of the area. “I’m seeing that basically since we took over south Sadr City the rocket and mortar attacks have become a lot less effective,” Stover said.