Funeral processions in Baghdad’s Shu'la district touched off public demonstrations protesting alleged US hostilities in the area, and demanding that the Iraqi government protect local residents, sources in the northwestern area of the capital told IraqSlogger.
Tensions remain high in Shu'la and US forces are still deployed in the area, eyewitnesses said, as controversy roils over US actions late Thursday night in the Shu’la district.
Iraqis insist that US raids and gunfire killed and injured noncombatant residents of the region, while US forces claim that there is no evidence of civilian casualties from the predawn fighting.
IraqSlogger sources in the district report that the US raids that led to the fighting late Thursday were tipped off by local residents, who informed US forces of the location of weapons caches.
After the US raids were underway, Mahdi Army fighters clashed with US forces during the night, leading to the deaths of some militiamen, locals inform IraqSlogger, adding that the fighting centered around the Shu'lat al-Sadrayn mosque.
While other media reports do not specify the affiliation of the gunmen involved in the fighting, IraqSlogger sources confirm that US forces faced off with members of the Mahdi Army, the Shi'a militia nominally loyal to the Sadrist current, the political and religious movement under the leadership of the young Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Locals tell Slogger that militants did indeed perish in the fighting, but they also insist that at many of the bodies transported on Friday from Shu'la to Najaf for burial in the holy Shi'a city on Friday were civilian victims of the overnight battles.
For its part, however, the US military has not recognized any civilian casualties.
In a statement, US forces said that fighting broke out when its troops came under attack during a search for a weapons cache in Shu'la on Thursday night.
“Troop C, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment attached to 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, confirmed killing 8 enemy combatants who were engaging a U.S. patrol with small arms and machine gun fire," the statement read.
“During the firefight, attack helicopters from the 4th ‘Guns’ Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, observed eight to 12” militiamen, armed with “AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades,” the statement reads, adding that the armed men were “moving toward Coalition Forces.”
“The pilots fired on the armed men and shortly thereafter observed several other Iraqi citizens policing up the site of the attack,” the statement adds.
The gunfire subsided, the statement says, and US troops located a weapons cache of “several mortars rounds, two explosively-formed projectile roadside bombs, a rocket, other small arms weapons and command wire in an abandoned house.”
“There is no evidence of civilian casualties,” the American statement said.
However, local officials and other residents corroborate Slogger’s eyewitness accounts that civilians were killed and wounded in the Shu'la battles. Death counts from various Iraqi sources are not in complete agreement, but number from around 9 or 10 civilians to as high as 21.
Sleeping on the rooftop
Women and children were among those civilians who died as a result of the US helicopters’ gunfire and ground fighting between US forces and militants, the resident said, according to the news agency’s report in Arabic.
Speaking anonymously, an official at Nour Hospital in Shu'la also told the AP that a woman and young boy were among the dead, counting the injured at 16, including four women and three early teenage boys, who had been sleeping on the roofs.
In addition, Iraqi police sources stated that civilians numbered among the dead and wounded, telling Aswat al-Iraq anonymously on Friday that at least ten people were killed and 20 injured during the armed clashes between militants and US forces as US forces attempted to enter the area Thursday evening at 11:00 p.m. Thursday evening, adding that the civilian dead and wounded included women and children.
A tribal shaykh from the region, Sabih al-Shurji, told Aswat al-Iraq that, “The air strikes and indiscriminate gunfire of US forces upon the district led to the death of nine people and the injury of 25 others,” adding that the majority of the victims died from US air-to-surface fire “because they were sleeping on the roofs of their homes.”
Asmaa al-Mousawi, a member of the municipal council in Shu'la, told Aswat al-Iraq that the local body had decided after its Friday meeting to raise a legal complaint against Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in light of the “violation” that occurred in the Shu'la area.
Mousawi, a member of the political bureau of the Sadrist organization, also holds a seat in the Iraqi parliament with the Sadr bloc.
In addition to the reported deadly gunfire from US airships, the MP said that US forces had earlier arrested women and family members of those wanted by the US forces, Aswat al-Iraq writes.
The US air strikes and raids focused on sectors 1 and 2 of Shu'la, Mousawi added. The predominantly Shi'a district is divided into 15 sectors, of which numbers 1 and 2 are located at the east end of the district.
“The American army blockaded the area and closed off its outlets a few days after arresting the women and the families of the wanted men,” she told Aswat al-Iraq, saying that the political committee of the Shu'la municipal council had decided to raise the legal complaint in Iraqi courts against the prime minister in order to hold him “morally and legally responsible” for the deaths and detentions.
The council would demand that Maliki either hold the Americans accountable or leave office, Mousawi said, adding that the local body will bring the complaint against the prime minister because in “occupied Iraq” it was not possible to bring complaints against the American forces.
However, Mousawi denied that Iraqi forces had participated in the raids and in the arrests of family members of wanted men, directing the accusations solely against US forces, Aswat al-Iraq reports.
From Najaf, Nasser al-Rubaie, the leader of the Sadrist bloc in the Iraqi parliament, said that 21 civilians died in Shu'la, and said the Maliki government was “weak and can do nothing in the face of the occupation,” the AP writes.
The flame of the Sadrs
Support for the Sadrist current runs strong in the district. In fact residents dubbed the area Shu'lat al-Sadrayn after the fall of the Ba'thist regime in 2003, a name that translates to “the flame of the two Sadrs,” referring to the two late Shi'a clerics held in high esteem by the Sadrist current, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, father-in-law and blood relative of Muqtada al-Sadr, and Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, Muqtada’s father.
Members of IraqSlogger’s network of Iraqi staff contributed to this report, but choose to remain anonymous for security reasons.