Deadly street battles prompt daytime Baghdad curfew

A daytime gun battle in the capital between Sunni insurgents and Shi’ite militiamen prompted the Iraqi government to tighten the Baghdad curfew on Friday as 22 people died in two bombings.

The street fighting on Haifa Street on Baghdad’s west side, a volatile area that had been relatively calm for months, broke out after militiamen loyal to Shi’ite radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army came under attack from Sunni Arab gunmen in the area, an Interior Ministry official said.

The militiamen were escorting Shi’ite worshippers to a special weekly prayers at the capital’s Baratha mosque, called by Sadr to commemorate the 11 people killed in a suicide bombing in the mosque last week.

“Insurgents armed with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] attacked eight cars belonging to the Mehdi Army when they were driving through Haifa Street,” the official said.

The militiamen retaliated and five of them were killed in the ensuing battle.

“The police who reached the site also came under attack and one police officer was wounded after which the Iraqi army arrived and sealed off the area,” the official added.

The battle broke out at about 11am local time with thundering explosions and the crackle of machine guns. Plumes of thick smoke shot into the sky from burning cars as United States military helicopters hovered overhead.

The fresh violence in the capital came despite a massive nine-day-old security operation involving 60 000 Iraqi and US personnel, dubbed Operation Forward Together.

As the battle raged on Haifa Street, the government imposed a curfew on all vehicle and pedestrian traffic from 2pm until 6am local time on Saturday.

But as the fighting subsided in the afternoon, state television announced that the extraordinary curfew would be lifted at 5pm but re-imposed again at 9pm.

In further Baghdad violence, a Shi’ite worshipper was killed and three wounded when gunmen ambushed them in the central al-Fadhel neighbourhood and two guards at the Baratha mosque were wounded when assailants tossed a grenade at their car, an interior ministry official said.

North of the capital, in the village of Hibhib, where al-Qaeda front man Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air raid earlier this month, 12 people were killed and 20 wounded when a bomb went off outside a Sunni mosque as worshippers were leaving the main weekly prayers.

The bomb was planted close to the rear door of the mosque as the front gate was closed for security reasons, police said.

In the main southern city of Basra, at least 10 people were killed and 18 wounded when a suicide bomber blew up a vehicle near a petrol garage, police said.

Just north of the capital, authorities found the bullet-riddled bodies of five government employees abducted two days ago.

Masked gunmen seized more than 60 staff of state-owned factories on Wednesday as they were heading home from work in Taji, on Baghdad’s northern outskirts.

Sunni Arabs, who made up nearly half of the hostages, were swiftly released, highlighting the sectarian motivation of the kidnappers.

The US’s most senior commander in Iraq, General George Casey, accused arch-foe Iran of encouraging acts of violence by Shi’ite militiamen.

“Since January, we have seen an upsurge in their support, particularly to the Shi’ite extremist groups,” Casey told reporters at the Pentagon.

“We are quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, are providing weapons, IED [improvised explosive device] technology and training to Shi’ite extremist groups in Iraq, the training being conducted in Iran and, in some cases, probably in Lebanon through their surrogates,” he said in allusion to Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah.

The US military announced the deaths of two marines and a soldier, bringing its total losses since the March 2003 invasion to 2 510, according to an Agence France-Presse count based on Pentagon figures.

Iraq freed 500 detainees from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, the fifth batch to be freed as part of a national reconciliation plan launched by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on June 6.—AFP

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