BAGHDAD – U.S. forces staged a major two-pronged attack on a neighborhood controlled by Shiite militia groups Wednesday morning, killing at least 17 people, according to the military and Iraqi police.
The raid on Sadr City, an area dominated by loyalists to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was one of the largest in a series of U.S. attacks against Shiite militias. The most powerful group, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, controls access to electricity, fuel and housing in much of eastern Baghdad as well as some western neighborhoods.
The timing of the operation, less than 24 hours before the start of a major Shiite holiday, angered many of Baghdad’s Shiites. A few hundred people staged a march Wednesday evening to protest the military action.
A U.S. military spokesman said in a statement that 32 suspected insurgents had been killed and an additional 12 arrested in the operation, which targeted members of a Mahdi Army splinter group suspected of being part of a network that smuggles weapons from Iran.
The U.S. military has repeatedly accused Iran of providing weapons, training and funding to Shiite groups operating in Iraq. The people targeted in Wednesday’s raid had facilitated the transport of explosively formed penetrators, the deadliest type of roadside bomb, the military said.
Iran has repeatedly denied any connection to the militias, and other critics – including some U.S. intelligence agents – have said there is no concrete evidence of such a link.
Ahmad al-Shaibani, a spokesman for al-Sadr, condemned the raid. He said the former director of the cleric’s office, Amir al-Husseini, was arrested in the event and that a significant number of innocent women and children were killed.
Meanwhile, security forces spent the day preparing for the Shiite march to the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim, one of 12 major Shiite saints. Iraqi police estimated that as many as 4 million pilgrims, some flogging and cutting themselves, will mark the holiday of grief.
Baghdad’s streets are closed to cars between this morning and Saturday morning to prevent car bombs or other attacks during the holiday.