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Masses take to streets in Iraq protest

Times Staff Writer

In a sign of growing rage against the Iraqi and U.S. governments, tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims marched Thursday in their Baghdad strongholds to protest a crackdown on Shiite militiamen that has led to more than 125 deaths.

The government announced a curfew in the capital until Sunday in an attempt to quell the violence that has spread to several cities since the offensive began Tuesday in the southern city of Basra.

Loyalists of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr rejected U.S. and Iraqi assertions that the Basra operation was aimed at rogue militiamen, instead insisting that it was targeting Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. A statement released late Thursday by Sadr’s political office said the cleric remained committed to the cease-fire he imposed on his militia in August.

“Muqtada Sadr is calling on everyone to follow political solutions and peaceful protest, and not to spill Iraqi blood, to reach a solution to the current crisis,” the statement said.

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But a fourth day of ferocious rocket and mortar attacks in and around the U.S.-guarded Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and most Iraqi government offices, underscored the anger among Shiite fighters who believe the United States and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki are working to cripple Sadr’s movement before local elections planned for this fall.

The U.S. military said the attacks were launched from Shiite areas of east Baghdad and that American forces had killed two “terrorists” suspected of involvement in the barrages. A U.S. civilian working with the embassy was among those killed Thursday when a rocket was fired into the Green Zone, in central Baghdad.

Thunderous booms rocked the capital throughout the day, and police and U.S. military reports indicated that as many as 18 mortar rounds had landed in the city.

The showdown has placed Iraqi and U.S. officials in an awkward position. Both have described the crackdown by Iraqi security forces as a sign of Maliki’s determination to stabilize areas plagued by fighting between rival Shiite militias. But they also say Sadr’s fighters are not the problem, despite his militia’s role in such unrest. Mollifying Sadr is crucial to his continuing the cease-fire, which is credited with helping reduce violence nationwide.

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U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker blamed the violence on a “subset” of the Mahdi Army.

“They really are essentially criminal militias, and they are the ones that have been the difficulty in Basra,” said Reeker, who used the honorific “sayyid” in reference to Sadr, a sign of the United States’ attempts to remain on relatively good terms with him.

But such statements have been met with skepticism from Sadr supporters.

“They made this crisis because the Sadr movement, they feel, will be an obstacle in the upcoming elections. They feel they won’t succeed in the elections,” said Abu Ali, a Mahdi Army member in Sadr City. The Baghdad slum is a stronghold of Sadr, and thousands there took part in Thursday’s marches.

Ali said violence would soar if Maliki did not halt the operation and meet Sadr’s demands for negotiations. “We will be more determined. Enough humiliation,” he said.

Maliki reiterated his demand that “criminal gangs” causing unrest in Basra disarm by Saturday.

“We are capable of facing any forces everywhere. We are determined to eradicate these criminal gangs. There will not be any negotiations with them,” he said. Maliki also made a point of not naming Sadr’s Mahdi Army as the troublemaker.

Scores of people have died since the fighting erupted early Tuesday, including at least 80 in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, police said. They said 45 people had died in Kut, the capital of Wasit province, in clashes between militiamen and Iraqi security forces.

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In Baghdad, the dead have included at least two Americans injured by rockets fired into the Green Zone on Sunday and Thursday. The State Department on Thursday ordered employees not to go outside without helmets and flak vests, harking back to the summer, when daily bombardments were the norm.

At least five barrages hit the Green Zone or nearby neighborhoods Thursday, the U.S. military said. Rocket attacks on three U.S. bases elsewhere in the capital injured at least four American soldiers. In addition, a U.S. soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in east Baghdad, bringing to at least 4,004 the number of American forces killed in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.

Most of southern Iraq’s major cities remained under curfew. In Basra, a major oil port city 275 miles southeast of Baghdad, residents reported gunmen patrolling the streets.

Residents said food prices were soaring because it was difficult to get goods into the city, where clashes continued Thursday. In a Sadr stronghold in west Basra, hundreds of people led by tribal sheiks held a protest demanding that the government halt the military operation and restore electricity and water, which they said had been cut three days earlier.

“What food remains in the markets has become very expensive because of the lack of supply,” said one man, who refused to give his name because he feared for his security. He said the price for a kilo of tomatoes (a little more than 2 pounds) had gone from about 20 cents to about $3.30.

Other witnesses said downtown Basra was empty of civilians and vehicles.

The Sadr movement has long vied for power in Basra and most of southern Iraq with the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a U.S.-allied political movement whose armed wing enjoys support from the Iraqi government. The rivalry has frequently led to violence between the two groups’ militias, most notably in August, when more than 50 people died in fighting in the holy city of Karbala.

Sadr announced his truce afterward, saying he needed time to rid his militia of rogue elements. Since then, he has denied involvement in violence and said Iraqi and U.S. forces have taken advantage of his cease-fire by detaining his followers.

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His followers say the recent passage of legislation clearing the way for local elections by October has exacerbated the situation as Maliki seeks to undermine Sadr’s power and influence in the south.

“I blame Maliki, SIIC and the Americans” for the violence, said Abu Dhiya, a member of Sadr’s militia who took part in the Sadr City demonstration. “SIIC receives orders from the Americans, and Maliki obeys and fulfills them.”

In what appeared to be a retaliatory attack on the government, gunmen Thursday broke into the home of Tahseen Sheikhly, a high-profile Iraqi government official, and abducted him. Sheikhly is a spokesman for the Baghdad security plan launched in February 2007 to quell violence in the capital, and he has frequently appeared at news conferences alongside U.S. officials.

Sheikhly’s brother, Ziad, said in a telephone interview that Sheikhly and his security guards had tried to fight off their attackers but surrendered when they ran out of ammunition. The kidnappers ransacked the house and set it on fire before fleeing with Sheikhly.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Said Rifai in Baghdad and special correspondents in Hillah, Baghdad and Basra contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Backlash

A look at an 85-minute period in Iraq on Thursday as violence raged over the government’s crackdown against Shiite Muslim militiamen, in which more than 125 people have died. All incidents were reported by special correspondents for The Times and are based on data from police sources.

11 a.m.: A roadside bomb explodes in north Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, killing two Iraqi policemen; clashes are reported between Iraqi forces and militiamen in Kifil, 15 miles south of Hillah.

12 p.m.: A mortar round lands near the National Museum in Baghdad, injuring three civilians and an Iraqi policeman. Another hits a street near the Iranian Embassy; no casualties are reported.

12:05 p.m.: Mortar rounds land in Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood, injuring three civilians.

12:10 p.m.: Iraq’s army and U.S. forces clash with militiamen in Baghdad’s Baladiyat neighborhood; an Iraqi civilian is reported killed.

12:20 p.m.: A mortar round lands on a police checkpoint in east Baghdad, injuring a policeman and a civilian.

12:25 p.m.: A car bomb explodes in Karada, killing two civilians and injuring five.


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