BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi forces backed by U.S. aircraft battled militants Friday in a Shiite stronghold of eastern Baghdad, killing or wounding more than 30 fighters and capturing an extremist leader who was the target of the raid, Iraqi and U.S. officials said.
In another operation, Iraqi troops backed by U.S. soldiers arrested a top regional commander of a Shiite militia near the southern city of Hillah, an American statement said. The moves appeared part of a crackdown on sectarian militias blamed for the escalation in Shiite-Sunni violence that has raised fears of civil war in recent months.
Sectarian attacks continued a day after a suicide car bomber attacked Iranian pilgrims near a Shiite Muslim shrine south of Baghdad, killing 12 people and wounding 39.
A series of bombs and a mortar round targeting the main Islamic weekly service struck four Sunni mosques in the Baghdad area and a Shiite mosque in northern Iraq, killing 17 people and wounding more than 50. The explosions in Baghdad defied a four-hour driving ban aimed at preventing such attacks during Friday prayers.
Tit-for-tat attacks on houses of worship have stoked tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, especially after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, an act that triggered reprisal violence against Sunni mosques and clerics.
A Sunni cleric was abducted Friday in Baghdad, said Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samaraie, head of the Sunni Endowment, the state agency responsible for Sunni mosques and shrines.
In an angry sermon, al-Samaraie said 181 Sunni imams have been killed since Saddam Hussein's ouster in March 2003. He called for the government to disband Shiite militias blamed for many of the attacks.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has said militias should gradually be disbanded and melded into Iraq's security forces, but he offered no specific proposals for doing so in his recent 24-point national reconciliation initiative.
The U.S. military said the raid in eastern Baghdad was launched to apprehend "an insurgent leader responsible for numerous deaths of Iraqi citizens." Iraqi troops came under fire from a rooftop, triggering a 43-minute gunbattle after which the insurgent leader was arrested. There were no U.S. or Iraqi casualties, the Americans said.
U.S. officials did not identify the insurgent. Residents of the Shiite slum Sadr City said they believed the raid targeted Abu Diraa, a commander in the Mahdi militia of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but he apparently had escaped.
The U.S. statement said only that the insurgent was involved "in the transfer of weapons from Syria into Iraq" in an effort to break away "from his current insurgent organization." The statement made no mention of any U.S. role but residents said they could hear American aircraft providing cover during the raid.
Also, the United States said Thursday that Iraqi and American forces arrested Adnan al-Unaybi, commander of a Mahdi militia force. The statement said he was arrested north of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.
An al-Sadr aide, Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, denounced the Baghdad raid, saying 11 civilians were killed and dozens wounded as U.S. jets fired on the area while people were sleeping on their roofs amid searing summer temperatures and electricity shortages.
"This is a big escalation from the American side," he said. "I condemn all the silence toward such violations and I call for the withdrawal of the American forces."
There were conflicting casualty figures. Lt. Kadim Abbas Hamza of the Sadr City police said fighter planes fired from the air at about 3:15 a.m. and nine people, including a woman, were killed and 14 were wounded. He also said eight people were arrested. A hospital official said seven people were killed and 34 wounded.
An Iraqi officer with the army division responsible for the Baghdad area said the Americans gave them a list of people to be arrested in Sadr City. Iraqi soldiers led the raid while the Americans played a supportive role, but nobody was arrested because of the clashes, the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
The early morning raid came as security forces searched for Sunni legislator Tayseer al-Mashhadani, who was abducted by gunmen in a nearby Shiite area nearly a week ago.
The al-Sadr aide said the group had condemned the kidnapping and denied the cleric's followers or members of the Mahdi army were linked to it.
AP Television News footage showed what appeared to a burned-out tent in the area of Sadr City where the raid occurred, with dishes still stacked on the ground. Photos showed women holding up colorful blankets with big holes in them. Some residents said the tent was for the funeral for Abu Diraa's uncle.
U.S. and Iraqi forces had staged a raid in the area in late March, with the Americans saying 16 "insurgents" were killed and police saying 22 people were killed.
Meanwhile, the first batch of Japanese troops began pulling out of southern Iraq, with about 30 arriving in Kuwait on their way home. Japanese officials said the withdrawal of all 600 or so troops will be carried out over the next two weeks.
In other violence Friday, according to police:
- A mortar round landed in front of the al-Nidaa Sunni mosque in northern Baghdad about 2 p.m., killing five people, including a policeman, and wounding two worshippers. A car bomb exploded about 10 minutes later as worshippers left a Sunni mosque in western Baghdad, killing a woman and two children.
- A bomb targeting the al-Furqan Sunni mosque in northeastern Baghdad wounded a passerby.
- A roadside bomb struck worshippers leaving the Ahmed bin Hanbal Sunni mosque in Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, killing one person and wounding five others.
- A car bomb exploded near a Shiite mosque as prayers were ending in the northern city of Sinjar, killing eight people and wounding 48.