BAGHDAD – U.S. soldiers arrested a police lieutenant suspected of working for an Iranian-backed militia after a firefight in eastern Baghdad on Friday that left six Iraqi police and seven gunmen dead.
The troops were ambushed from rooftops, a church and a police checkpoint during their predawn raid meant to apprehend the lieutenant, whom American authorities believe was funded by an Iranian security force. The soldiers called in fire from a fixed-wing aircraft, aiming directly in front of a police checkpoint that was the source of a small-arms barrage.
The U.S. military said the airstrike was meant as a warning and that the soldiers had tried to avoid hurting any policemen.
“Coalition forces returned fire in accordance with escalation of force rules,” the military said in a statement. “Initial reports indicate that approximately seven terrorists and six Iraqi police were killed in the firefight.”
The military described the suspect as a leader of the Special Groups, an alleged offshoot of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia that U.S. officials believe receives backing from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
The military accused him of coordinating logistical support from Iran for militants and leading cells that attack U.S. forces with armor-piercing bombs, mortars and rockets.
An Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, labeled the shootout a “misunderstanding,” adding that three Iraqi policemen were killed and nine others wounded. He said he didn’t know if any police officers had been arrested. The clash occurred at 2 a.m. near a checkpoint in the center of Baghdad.
The incident came the day after a Bush administration assessment on Iraq’s political, economic and security progress reiterated that Iraq’s forces were still troubled by sectarianism and militia infiltration.
“The fact of the matter is that there are elements of the Iraqi police and elements of Iraqi army that are infiltrated, and the Iraqi government is working very hard to work their way through that,” Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a news briefing Friday in Washington.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during the briefing with Pace that he expected mortar and rocket attacks to intensify through September, when a critical evaluation by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and ground commander Gen. David H. Petraeus would be submitted to Congress.