Fierce clashes between Mahdi Army fighters and US forces in the Iraqi capital’s Sadr City district killed at least 20 people on Sunday, amid calls from Iraqi puppet leaders for all militias to be disbanded.
Officials from Iraq’s puppet security and defence ministries said women and children were among the dead and 52 wounded in the Sadr City clashes that broke out at around midnight on Saturday and continued sporadically through the day on Sunday.
Iraqi police said sporadic exchanges of fire occurred through Sunday morning.
Police said two armoured Humvee vehicles belonging to the puppet Iraqi army were hit and a US Stryker armoured personnel carrier was damaged.
The US military did not confirm the Stryker-damage claim, but said that fighting had broken out overnight between fighters and Iraqi units supported by US forces.
Nasser al-Rubaei, the head of al-Sadr’s bloc in the Iraqi parliament, told of ‘joint Iraqi and US attacks against Sadr City’.
He said: ‘We as the Sadr movement back the security forces.
‘But we reject that Iraqi forces be used as a shield for the occupation forces.’
The US military said it carried out an air strike in Sadr City at around 8:00 am (0500 GMT) in which ‘nine criminals’ were killed.
Hospital officials said most of the dead and wounded had suffered gunshot wounds.
Local witnesses said a US helicopter fired two missiles into Sadr City, bastion of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, at around 11.00am but the US military did not immediately confirm a second air strike.
The clashes came days before this Wednesday’s mass protest of a million Iraqis in Sadr City called by Sadr against the presence of US forces in Iraq.
The protest coincides with the fifth anniversary of the toppling of President Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Sadr’s office is calling on all Iraqis – Shia, Sunni, Kurd and Christian to assemble for the million-strong demonstration to evict the occupiers.
Salah al-Obeidi, spokesman for Sadr’s office in Najaf, said: ‘The Sadr movement has decided to change the venue of the huge demonstration that had been announced for Najaf on April 9.
‘A protest in Baghdad will be more effective because it is in the capital, and secondly, a protest there will allow people of other sects to participate.’
Obeidi stressed that the protest is ‘not limited to the Sadr movement. We want all Iraqis to take part. The target of the protest is the occupation.’
US commanders have previously claimed their forces were targeting ‘criminals’ firing mortars and rockets from Sadr City into Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, seat of the puppet Iraqi government and their US masters.
Shi’ite fighters, mostly from Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, have been clashing with security forces since March 25 after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a crackdown on militiamen in the southern city of Basra.
The military assaults triggered firefights across Shi’ite areas of Iraq, including Sadr City, that killed at least 700 people, according to the United Nations.
The clashes eased after Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets but sporadic firefights continue, especially in Sadr City.
The Maliki government, meanwhile, urged the disbanding of militias throughout the country in a move seen as pressuring Sadr to rein in his fighters ahead of provincial elections on October 1.
Members of the Political Council of National Security met at puppet President Jalal Talabani’s office on Saturday and framed a 15-point statement aimed at disarming the militias, most of them aligned to political parties.
The council comprises the president, the prime minister and the heads of the various political blocs.
‘The militias should be integrated into civilian activities as a condition for participating in the political process and the next elections,’ Talabani’s office said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Falah Shanshal, Al-Sadr Bloc MP, affirmed on Saturday that the demonstrations, which are being staged by the Al-Sadr Trend, since Friday prayers will continue until the government meets all the demands of the Trend.
Shanshal added that the Al-Sadr bloc is waiting for the Iraqi government to respond to the initiative of Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr, stop all arrest campaigns, and lift the curfew that some areas are being placed under.
Shanshal said: ‘These demonstrations and sit-ins will continue until the demands of the Al-Sadr Trend are met.
‘A five-party committee has been formed in order to handle this issue.
‘The Al-Sadr Bloc has two representatives in this committee, and the representatives are Dr Qusay and Hasan Hashim.
‘In fact, we are waiting for the implementation of the Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr’s initiative, and waiting to meet the demands of the masses of the sons of the Al-Sadr Trend and the Iraqi people.
‘As a matter of fact, if the government does not respond to the demands of the Iraqi people, there will be some other action.
‘We demand that they (Iraqi officials) play their humanitarian and national roles.
‘However, if the government exceeds the limits, so to speak, does not respond to the Iraqi people’s demands, and turns a blind eye to its historic and moral responsibility to the sons of the people, I think that the sons of the people should take more stringent measures, so to speak, with the aim of expressing their will and defending the sons of the Iraqi people.
‘There is a big problem. The Iraqi government should not contribute to creating huge gaps with the sons of Iraqi people.
‘There were clashes in the past few days.
‘Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki should not contribute to widening the gap between him and the sons of the Iraqi people.’
l The US State Department said last Friday that it is extending its diplomat protection contract for private security firm Blackwater USA, despite the incident last September in which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians.
‘I have requested and received approval to have Task Order 6, which Blackwater has to provide personal protective services in Baghdad, renewed for one year,’ said Gregory Starr at the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
Blackwater is the most controversial of several private security firms tasked with protecting high-profile US officials and foreign dignitaries visiting Iraq.
Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 Iraqi civilians while escorting a US diplomat through Baghdad in a September 16, 2007 incident that the Iraqi government considers a crime.
Blackwater claims its guards reacted in self-defence.
The company’s contract was set to expire on May 7.
It was renewed because Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have not yet concluded their inquiry into the September shooting, Starr said.
The US government, and especially US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, ‘will take a very close look at the FBI reports and then we will decide whether it is consistent with the US government goals and policies to continue the contract of Blackwater,’ said Starr.
Foreign security companies at present are not subject to Iraq law, but at the same time are not governed by US military tribunals, allowing them to operate without any repercussions for their actions.