April 13, 2008 – Heavy fighting between American and Iraqi forces and fighters loyal to the Shia religious leader Moqtada al-Sadr have killed at least 13 people in the huge and impoverished Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. The fighting, which followed the assassination of a senior aide to al-Sadr, continued despite a call for calm by the cleric, who is a fierce opponent of the US-led occupation.
At least 13 people died in the clashes, which erupted on Friday night and tapered off early yesterday, said the US military, which claimed that all of the dead were fighters. Iraqi police reported that the total included seven civilians.
Al-Sadr had blamed the Americans and their Iraqi allies for the death of his aide, Riyadh al-Nouri, director of his office in the Shia holy city of Najaf. Gunmen ambushed al-Nouri as he was returning home from Friday prayers.
The latest fighting – in the week that General David Petraeus admitted to the US Congress that security progress following the much-vaunted ‘surge’ of 30,000 soldiers in the Baghdad area had produced only a ‘fragile’ result, which could easily be reversed – came as US officials blamed Iran, not al-Qaeda, as being the primary threat in the region.
The senior officials, quoted in yesterday’s Washington Post, apparently reflected the view of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates about Tehran’s allegedly ‘malign’ influence in Iraq.
According to the newspaper, the intensified focus on Iran is now being cited as the main justification for a continuing US military presence in Iraq. During the briefing, Petraeus, who is the senior American military commander in Iraq, and his civilian counterpart, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, barely mentioned al-Qaeda in Iraq but both of them spoke extensively of Iran.
With ‘al-Qaeda in retreat and disarray’ in Iraq, one official told the Washington Post, ‘we see other obstacles that were under the waterline more clearly… The Iranian-armed militias are now the biggest threat to internal order.’
The comments come as Petraeus has made clear that, while his recommendation is to ‘thin’ the number of American troops on the ground in Iraq to around 120,000 by the end of this year, he has no intention of reducing the countrywide breadth of the US military footprint.
Petraeus’s suggestion of a continued long occupation – albeit with reduced troop numbers in the future – follows the announcement that American diplomats will begin moving into their new, gigantic, heavily fortified embassy in Baghdad next month after long delays in the $736 million project.
Crocker announced on Friday that the building at the Vatican-sized compound – the world’s largest United States embassy – was now complete.