Sporadic Mortar Attacks Rain Down On Baghdad
LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
Mortars have been raining down on Baghdad for the past few days. The target is almost always the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. embassy is located. Iraqi and American officials say the attacks are being carried out by Shiite militiamen trained in Iran. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Baghdad.
KELLY MCEVERS: Sporadic mortar attacks are pretty common in the Green Zone, especially when high-level U.S. officials are visiting Iraq. Employees at the massive new American embassy compound are used to hearing warnings blare out over the loudspeakers.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)
Unidentified Man: Duck and cover. Get away from the window.
MCEVERS: This recent warning turned out to be a false alarm. In just the past few days, though, nearly a dozen mortar rounds have been heard landing in and around the Green Zone.
Iraqi police say they've discovered the origin of at least three of these mortar attacks, in neighborhoods that once provided sanctuary to the Mahdi Army. During sectarian fighting, it was common for this Shiite militia to launch mortars into Sunni neighborhoods.
So far no injuries have been reported in this week's attacks. U.S. ambassador Jim Jeffrey says up to a quarter of all American casualties here can be attributed to Iranian-trained groups that want to destabilize Iraq.
JIM JEFFREY: It's a low cost option for insurgents and terrorists, particularly those that we believe are supported, one way or the other, by Iran. Nonetheless, we have good systems to deter it, to spot them, to give us alarms, and they're not going to stand us down.
MCEVERS: Brigadier General Ralph Baker commands U.S. forces in Baghdad. He says the number of mortar attacks on the Green Zone or on Camp Victory, the sprawling U.S. military base near Baghdad's airport, is increasing to about 30 a month. That's up from just one or two each month earlier this year.
Baker and other commanders say two groups in particular, the Promise Day Brigade and Kataeb Hezbollah, recently were trained and equipped by an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps.
RALPH BAKER: We know that the Iranians continue to supply the Iranian surrogate groups like Promise Day Brigade and Kataeb Hezbollah with equipment, supplies, and direction.
MCEVERS: Baker says U.S. and Iraqi forces have found both mortars and rockets they say were supplied by this Iranian unit.
BAKER: You tend to hear about the rocket attacks. What you don't hear about are the number of cache sites with rockets that they take off the streets every day, and the number of rockets that they actually disarm before they fire into Baghdad.
MCEVERS: Unlike Sunni insurgent groups, such as the local branch of al-Qaida and others, these Shiite groups now target Americans almost exclusively. Baker says as U.S. forces reduce their numbers in Iraq, the groups want to take credit for driving the US away.
The US military has changed the name of its mission here, from combat to advise, assist, train, and equip. But Baker says the U.S. military still retains the right to defend itself.
BAKER: We can come outside of our bases and deny points of origin and locations that insurgents use to attack us with indirect fire. We still retain the ability to be preemptive if we have intelligence that there's an imminent threat against U.S. forces. So I just want to be clear about that.
MCEVERS: These days, whenever the characteristic thud of a mortar round is heard landing here in the capitol, the sound of a U.S. helicopter is likely to follow, searching for the source.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.
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