Iraqi/U.S. Forces Fight Militia in Diwaniyah

U.S. warplanes blasted a militia team firing rocket-propelled grenades Saturday, the second day of heavy fighting in a major offensive to drive Shiite Mahdi Army militiamen out of Diwaniyah, a farm-belt city south of Baghdad.

Maj. Gen. Othman Farhood al-Ghanemi, commander of the Iraqi army's 8th Division, said the U.S.-Iraqi operation to retake Diwaniyah took shape after a three-month crescendo of violence in which at least 58 people were killed or kidnapped.

In violence leading up to the offensive, many women reportedly were killed after the hard-line fundamentalist militiamen accused them of violating their strict interpretation of Islamic morality.

Al-Ghanemi told The Associated Press that militants were armed with rocket-propelled grenades, Katyusha rockets, Strela anti-aircraft rockets and AK-47 assault rifles. Before the offensive, militants attacked Iraqi and U.S. led coalition forces 17 times with roadside bombs, some of them armor-piercing explosively formed projectiles.

The U.S. military accuses Iran of providing militants with the deadly EFPs.

"Although the army now is in the city, gunmen still have an armed presence. This will take time to finish. We are backed by friendly multinational forces and had it not been for them we would not have been able to detect and dismantle so many roadside bombs today," the general said.

Al-Ghanemi said the tipping point in Diwaniyah was March 20, when militiamen attacked and set fire to police roadblocks in 15 southeast neighborhoods and turned them into no go zones for the authorities.

Much of the Diwaniyah police force is said to be controlled by the Badr Brigade, a rival militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's most powerful Shiite political party. SCIRI, as it is known, controls the Qadisiyah provincial council.

Police were ordered off the streets Saturday and some residents said the Iraqi military did not trust them. But Brig. Sadiq Jaafar, the city police chief, said his men were sent indoors because they were too poorly equipped to be of use in the fighting.

An Iraqi army official, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to release the figures, said three civilians and three Mahdi Army fighters died in the Saturday battle. At least 29 people were wounded, 21 civilians, six Iraqi soldiers and two American soldiers.

The official said U.S. and Iraqi forces captured 36 militiamen.

In its account of the second day of fighting, the U.S. military reported only one Iraqi death, that of the militiaman hit in the airstrike. It said three U.S. soldiers received minor cuts in a roadside bombing that destroyed their Humvee.

"Fighting was less steady than yesterday's actions. Our assessment is that our operations are being effective," said Maj. Eric Verzola, spokesman for the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division.

The U.S. Iraqi drive into Diwaniyah named, "Operation Black Eagle", began before dawn Friday.

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