BAGHDAD, Iraq—Armed groups of Sunni and Shiite Muslims battled Tuesday for control of several neighborhoods in southwest Baghdad, residents of those areas reported. It was another sign that security is deteriorating in the capital and that Iraq may be moving closer to a full-fledged civil war.
Fighting between armed groups of Shiites and Sunnis isn't uncommon in Baghdad, but the extent of Tuesday's fighting was unprecedented, and it raised troubling questions about the U.S. and Iraqi government effort to bring order to the capital.
The U.S. military has been touting the effectiveness of its so-called Baghdad security plan in recent days, under which beefed-up American and Iraqi forces have cordoned off some neighborhoods and searched them in an effort to rid them of gunmen. U.S. spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Monday that attacks in Baghdad had dropped in August and the homicide rate was down 46 percent over July.
None of the neighborhoods where fighting flared Tuesday has been part of that plan, suggesting that as U.S. and Iraqi government forces crack down in one place, violence flares in another.
There was no official version of the fighting in al Ray, Shurta Rabiyah, Ghuratan and Suwaib, which are predominantly Sunni neighborhoods. Residents said an effort by supporters of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr to seize control of the areas had triggered the fighting. A Sadr spokesman, while acknowledging battles, said no Sadr supporters were involved.
An official reached at the Interior Ministry, who refused to give his name, confirmed that fighting was taking place, but said the areas were still too dangerous for police to enter and that the ministry had no information on casualties. Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. military, said he was unaware of the clashes.
Iraqi soldiers also have had recent battles with Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. On Monday, Mahdi militiamen and Iraqi soldiers battled for hours in the town of Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad. An Iraqi army account of the fighting said 23 soldiers and 30 militiamen died. Reports said eight civilians were killed and 70 other people were wounded.
On Tuesday, the fighting there appeared to have ended under an agreement reached after a delegation that included the governor of Qadissiya province and a number of other provincial leaders met with Sadr at his home in Najaf.
Details of the agreement weren't available. The head of the Sadr office in Diwaniyah, Sheik Abdul Razaq al Nidawi, said Iraqi soldiers had withdrawn from the town and that the agreement prohibited them from returning to areas where clashes had taken place Monday.
But Muhammad Askari, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said troops of the 8th Iraqi Army Division remained in the town.
Establishing control over the country has been a key—and so far unrealized—goal of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, who took office in May pledging to disarm militias. But he's been slow to move against Sadr, whose supporters control the largest voting bloc in parliament and lead the Ministries of Education and Trade.
Descriptions of what happened in the Baghdad neighborhoods Tuesday fell along sectarian lines, but various accounts and reports from the human rights office of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political party, suggested that the fighting may have been going on for at least three days.
Sunni residents described large organized groups, including Mahdi Army members, entering their communities and assassinating residents. They said members of the mostly Sunni Ghuratan tribe responded, vowing to protect the area.
Minority Shiite residents in the same areas said Ghuratan tribesmen instigated the clashes by kidnapping and killing three Shiite residents and that a rival Shiite tribe, al Boamir, which has strong ties to militias, defended them.
Leaders of the al Boamir tribe acknowledged in interviews with McClatchy Newspapers that they were fighting in southwest Baghdad, but said they were simply defending Shiites.
Both sides agreed it was a battle for control of the neighborhoods.
Because the militias, tribesmen and Sunni armed factions don't wear uniforms identifying themselves as such, it's impossible to know which groups are battling each other.
Abdel Hadi al Mohammedawiya, the head of Sadr's western Baghdad office, acknowledged fighting in southwest Baghdad but denied that the Sadrists were involved.
A man who wanted to be referred to as Abu Abdullah, a Sunni engineer who lives in Shurta Rabiyah, said this was the first time he'd taken part in fighting. He said the presence of Shiite militias had forced him to take up arms.
"There are a lot of times when I think there is no choice but to carry our weapons and fight in a civil war," he said. "It is difficult for a Sunni now; the militias are everywhere."
A housewife who asked to be identified as Umm Hussein (the mother of Hussein), said she fled al Ray on Tuesday with her husband and three children after several days of clashes. She said she'd felt helpless during the battle.
"The people don't dare shoot at the terrorists," she said. "They lock their doors, hold their Kalashnikovs to defend their families and read the Quran."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.