US raids target Iranian-made weapons
Militants arrested in Sadr City
BAGHDAD -- US-led forces yesterday arrested suspected Shi'ite militants accused of smuggling powerful bomb components from Iran, and clashes between Shi'ite factions broke out in two major cities.
Also yesterday, the United States announced the deaths of five American soldiers, three of them in bombings.
The arrests occurred during a raid early yesterday in Baghdad's teeming Shi'ite district of Sadr City, stronghold of the notorious Mahdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
A US military statement did not identify them as Mahdi Army members but said they were part of a "secret cell" that smuggles powerful bombs known as "explosively formed penetrators," or EFPs, from Iran and sends Shi'ite fighters from Iraq for training in Iran.
US officials and some Iraqi officials suspect the Iranians might be stoking a growing power struggle among Shi'ite factions and political parties -- despite the Tehran government's insistence that it is working to help bring stability to its neighbor Iraq.
Clashes broke out yesterday in Baghdad and in the Shi'ite shrine city of Najaf when police said Mahdi Army gunmen attacked offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Republic in Iraq, or SCIRI, a key member of the US-backed Iraqi government but with strong ties to Tehran.
Four people were injured in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, prompting local authorities to impose a curfew. The clash in Baghdad occurred when Mahdi gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons at a SCIRI office in the Habibiya district, injuring two guards, police said.
In Diwaniyah, a Shi'ite city 80 miles south of Baghdad, suspected Shi'ite gunmen attacked a joint US-Iraqi patrol late yesterday, killing one Iraqi soldier and wounding four civilians, police said.
It was unclear what provoked the attacks, but they appeared to be part of an escalating power struggle brewing throughout the dominant Shi'ite community. Violence intensified after Britain announced plans to reduce its troops in the mostly Shi'ite south.
Shi'ite parties are trying to oust the Shi'ite governor of oil-rich Basra Province, and violence has broken out recently in Kut and other Shi'ite cities.
Some Mahdi Army members in Sadr City have said a pro-Iranian faction has been sending fighters to Iran for training. The members spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears for their own safety.
In another sign of unrest, hundreds of angry Shi'ites poured onto the streets of Najaf and Basra to protest what they considered insults by Al-Jazeera television against Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The protesters were angered by an Al-Jazeera talk show this week in which the host, Egyptian Ahmed Mansour, questioned Sistani's leadership credentials and whether he authored his own religious edicts.
Unrest in Shi'ite areas adds a new and dangerous dimension to the challenge facing US forces as they try to restore order in the capital during the 11-week Baghdad security operation.
US officials maintain that sectarian killings in the capital have declined since the Baghdad crackdown was launched Feb. 14, in large part because Shi'ite militias assumed a low profile to avoid confrontation with the Americans.
But attacks using EFPs, the signature weapon of Shi'ite militias, are on the rise.
Last month, the number of EFP attacks against American forces hit a monthly high of 69, US officials said. At the same time, April was the deadliest month for US troops in Iraq since December with 104 deaths, although it was unclear how many were a result of EFPs.
The increase in attacks using EFPs, which the United States says come from Iran, suggest that the Shi'ite extremists might be shifting tactics, reducing their slaughter of Sunni civilians but focusing more on US and Iraqi forces.
This week, extremists launched at least three rocket or mortar attacks against the US-controlled Green Zone, killing four Asian contractors.
Those attacks appeared to have come from areas where Shi'ite militias operate.
It was unclear whether Iranian weapons were responsible for the latest US deaths.
The military said one American soldier was killed yesterday by a bomb south of Baghdad. Four others were killed Thursday -- two by bombings in Sunni and Shi'ite areas of the capital and two in unspecified "combat operations" in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province.
At least 38 other Iraqis were killed or found dead yesterday, police said. They included five police officers killed in a roadside bombing in western Baghdad and five civilians who died when a car bomb exploded near a Shi'ite mosque in Hillah.
The bodies of 16 men were found, all handcuffed with bullet wounds , in various parts of Baghdad, apparent victims of sectarian death squads, according to police.