US jets target Shiite areas in Basra
Sunday March 30 2008 00:00 IST
APBAGHDAD: US forces stepped deeper into the Iraqi government’s fight to cripple Shiite militias, launching airstrikes in the southern city of Basra and firing a missile into the main Shiite stronghold in Baghdad. The American support occurred on Friday as Iraqi troops struggled against strong resistance in Basra and retaliation elsewhere in Shiite areas – including more salvos of rockets or mortars into the US-protected Green Zone in Baghdad.
It was the first time American jets have been called to attack militia positions since Iraqi ground forces launched an operation Tuesday to clear Basra of the armed groups that have effectively ruled the streets of the country’s second-largest city for nearly three years.
One militia barrage slammed into the headquarters of the Basra police command late on Friday, triggering a huge fire and explosions when one of the rounds struck a gasoline tanker, police officials said.
Earlier on Friday, US jets struck a building housing militia fighters and blasted a mortar team that was firing on Iraqi forces, British military spokesman Maj. Tim Holloway said without further details.
Many of those groups are believed to receive weapons, money and training from nearby Iran, the world’s most populous Shiite nation.
The crackdown in Basra has provoked a violent reaction – especially from the Mahdi Army of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His followers accuse rival Shiite parties in the government of trying to crush their movement before provincial elections this fall.
Their anger has led to a sharp increase in attacks against American troops in Shiite areas following months of relative calm after al-Sadr declared a unilateral cease-fire last August.
Before dawn on Friday, a US aircraft fired a Hellfire missile in the Sadr City district – the Baghdad stronghold of the Mahdi Army – after gunmen there opened fire on an American patrol.
The US military said the missile strike killed four militants, but Iraqi officials said nine civilians were killed and nine others wounded.
Another US airstrike targeted a rocket-propelled grenade mounted vehicle in the mostly Sunni neighbourhood of Azamiyah, killing two militants, the military said separately.
US military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss Pentagon assessments, said commanders are wary of bringing major firepower into Shiite areas such as Sadr City, fearing large-scale civilian casualties could bring more backlash through Baghdad.
But, the officials said, American forces are more willing to offer air support in Basra, which is the centerpiece of the current showdown.
Defying a curfew in Baghdad, Shiite extremists lobbed more rockets or mortars against the US-protected Green Zone, which has come under steady barrages this week. The attacks prompted the State Department to order Embassy personnel to stay inside.
At least two rounds Friday struck the Green Zone offices of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, killing two guards and wounding four, his daughter and executive secretary Lubna al-Hashemi said.