A day after radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr resurfaced to end nearly four months in hiding and demand US troops leave Iraq, US forces raided his Sadr City stronghold in Baghdad and killed five suspected militia fighters in air strikes, the US military said in a statement issued yesterday.
The military said US and Iraqi forces called in the air strikes after a raid in which they captured a "suspected terrorist cell leader."
The statement said the captured man was "the suspected leader in a secret cell terrorist network known for facilitating the transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran to Iraq, as well as bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for terrorist training."
EFPs are deadly roadside bombs that hurl a fist-size slug of molten copper that penetrates armor, a weapon that has been highly effective against US forces over the past year.
The militia fighters were killed in air strikes on nine cars that were seen positioning themselves to attack US forces after the raid, the military said.
Al-Sadr's reappearance in the fourth month of the US-Iraqi security crackdown on Baghdad and environs was expected to complicate the mission to crack down on violence and broker political compromise in the country.
Hours after the cleric spoke at a key Shiite shrine in Kufa, about 160km south of Baghdad, the notorious leader of al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia in the city of Basra was killed in a shootout as British and Iraq troops tried to arrest him, police and the British military said, further inflaming tensions in the Shiite areas of southern Iraq.
The US military also announced the deaths of eight US soldiers and one Marine, putting this month on pace to be one of the deadliest months for US forces here in years.
Al-Sadr went underground -- reportedly in Iran -- at the start of the US-led security crackdown on Baghdad 14 weeks ago. He had also ordered his militia off the streets to prevent conflict with US forces.
His return to the Shiite holy city of Najaf appeared to be an effort by the 33-year-old firebrand cleric to regain control over his militia, which had begun fragmenting, and to take advantage of the illness of a Shiite rival. There had also been some indication that his absence from the national arena was costing him political support.
Al-Sadr drove in a long motorcade from Najaf to its sister city of Kufa to deliver an anti-US sermon to 6,000 chanting supporters at the main mosque.
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