BAGHDAD -- U.S. and Iraqi forces clashed with Shiite militants during a raid in the southern holy city of Karbala yesterday in which they captured a militia commander accused of orchestrating attacks on Iraqi officials and American soldiers.
In political developments, President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, chastised Iraq's largest Sunni political bloc for withdrawing from the Cabinet last week, saying the bloc has "shown sympathy, if not outright support to terrorist forces" including affiliates of al-Qaida.
The U.S. military said in a statement that Iraqi security forces and U.S. Special Forces who were pursuing "rogue" Shiite militia leaders in Karbala were attacked by militants firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades from three locations. With the help of an attack helicopter, U.S. and Iraqi forces killed about 17 insurgents, the statement said.
Soldiers detained three militants, including a commander of the Mahdi Army militia who was in charge of an "assassination cell" of more than 100 militants suspected of killing two Iraqi government officials and attacking U.S. forces with roadside bombs and armor-penetrating explosives, according to the statement.
No Iraqi civilians were in the area at the time of the raid, the military said.
But witnesses said at least nine people were killed and 28 injured in the clashes, including five civilians and four Shiite militants. The civilians killed included a woman and two children, witnesses said.
They said the shooting erupted after a municipal guard, not recognizing the Americans who dropped from aircraft under cover of darkness, fired as they approached.
Witnesses said U.S. soldiers attempted to detain Sheik Razzaq Aridh, a Mahdi Army leader, but couldn't find him at his house and eventually detained Firas Sammach, a midlevel militia leader, and his brother.
Residents trace yesterday's violence to a recent decision by Karbala's police chief to fire 150 officers for having Mahdi Army ties. The firings led to threats from city council members allied with the militia's commander, anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Two days ago, a roadside bomb exploded in front of the police chief's house, killing three of his guards.
The U.S. military announced yesterday that a soldier was killed by an explosion near his vehicle in Diyala province Thursday.
Talabani told Hurra television the Sunni Tawafiq bloc has become a criminal element within the government. He characterized its decision to withdraw from the Cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, as a dereliction of duty.
He accused the bloc of tolerating Sunni insurgents.
Harith Obeidi, a member of parliament from Tawafiq, said during a sermon yesterday at a Sunni mosque in Baghdad that Tawafiq politicians are threatened by Iraqi security forces who raid and search their homes. He said members of the bloc are holding the national government accountable for its failure to deliver basic services such as electricity.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes for the Los Angeles Times.