BAGHDAD — The Iraq Army has engaged in fierce clashes with the Iranian-sponsored Mahdi Army which is represented in the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.
Troops from the Iraqi Army’s 8th Division fought street battles with forces from the increasingly powerfuly Iran-backed militia in the central Iraqi town of Diwaniyah. The fighting, which initially included police units, began on Aug. 27 and involved hundreds of soldiers and insurgents.
Over the last few months, the Mahdi Army, with an estimated force of more than 10,000, has raised its profile in central and southern Iraq. The militia, led by Iraqi cleric Muqtada Sadr, controls five Cabinet posts as well as the predominately Shi’ite police force.
“We had a situation that was beyond at least the initial capability of the Iraqi police, so they called in the Iraqi army,” U.S. Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard, commander of the Iraq Assistance Group, said. “The Iraqi army and the Iraqi police together, as a force, repelled the insurgents.”
So far, casualties have been reported to be high in the 12-hour battle. The Defense Ministry said at least 20 soldiers and 40 Mahdi fighters were said to have been killed.
Witnesses said Mahdi Army troops captured two neighborhoods in Diwaniyah, located 180 kilometers south of Baghdad. The army responded by sealing the town and raiding three neighborhoods controlled by Mahdi.
On Monday, Mahdi fighters attacked police stations with rocket-propelled grenades. The police summoned reinforcements from the army’s 8th Division.
“The town is divided between areas controlled by the army and that by the militia,” a witness said. “It’s very dangerous here.
Hours later, an explosion rocked an area south of Diwaniyah and 20 people were reported killed. Officials said Iraqi criminals sought to tap into an oil pipeline on late Monday when the facility exploded.
On Tuesday, military sources said a Mahdi commander reached agreement for a ceasefire on Tuesday. They said the militia has begun withdrawing from checkpoints established around town.
“We have also asked for more troops from other provinces because a large military operation has been planned,” an Iraq Army officer said.