BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi and U.S. troops detained a militant leader suspected of ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in a raid in Baghdad on Saturday in which five gunmen were killed in an air strike, the U.S. military said.
The military, which has long accused Iran of supporting Shi’ite militias in Iraq, said the raid took place in Sadr City, the sprawling slum that is a stronghold of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia.
The man detained in the raid was “suspected of … acting as a proxy for an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps officer”.
The five suspected gunmen were killed when an air strike was called in on a column of nine vehicles that were positioning themselves to ambush the U.S. and Iraqi troops, the U.S. military said in a statement.
But residents and police said the cars had been queuing at a petrol station. A Reuters reporter counted at least 11 burnt-out vehicles about one kilometre from the station.
Such lengthy queues are common in Iraq, where there is a chronic shortage of petrol. Motorists often park their vehicles overnight and then go home if they live nearby, or sleep on the street next to their cars. “The armoured vehicles came at 3.30 a.m.. They circled the roundabout and left before a plane came and started bombing the cars queuing for petrol and the hospital,” a guard at Habibiya maternity hospital told Reuters. “There were people asleep here in the roundabout and the plane repeatedly bombed them.”
One missile crashed through the wall of the hospital and dug itself several meters into the ground without exploding. Police said two people were killed and five wounded in the air strike. “The individual detained … is believed to be the suspected leader in a secret cell terrorist network for facilitating the transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran to Iraq as well as bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for terrorist training,” the U.S. military said.
U.S. military commanders in Iraq say Iran is supplying militants with EFPs, a particularly deadly type of roadside bomb that can destroy an Abrams battle tank. Iran denies the charges.
U.S. and Iranian officials are due to hold rare talks on Monday in Baghdad on Iraq’s violence. Sadr appeared in public on Friday after a months-long absence and called on his Mehdi Army to stop fighting Iraqi soldiers.