U.S. Military, Iraq Leaders Disagree on Deadly Raid

Shiite political leaders in Iraq are angry after this weekend's American-backed raid on a Shiite compound. The U.S. military and Shiite leaders disagree about the events that resulted in the death of at least 16 people. Shiite leaders have suspended talks on a new government because of the incident.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There was another suicide bombing in Iraq today, this time at an army recruiting center outside the northern city of Mosul. At least 40 Iraqis were killed and 30 others wounded. Attacks like this are typical of Sunni-led insurgents who are trying to undermine the Iraqi government.

A joint U.S.-Iraqi military operation in Baghdad yesterday has now jeopardized talks on the formation of a new government. Shiite officials and political leaders have reacted angrily to the joint assault on a Shiite mosque complex that left at least 16 Iraqis dead.

NPR's Anne Garrels joins us from Baghdad, and, Anne, it's not uncommon to have conflicting accounts of an incident like this, and that seems to be the case here.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

There are very different versions of events. And, frankly, the U.S. version is far from clear. American military officials say Iraqi Special Forces with U.S. troops only as advisors raided an "objective" to clean out "a terrorist cell." That's it. They said they killed 16 insurgents, freed an Iraqi hostage, and that they found large numbers of weapons and bomb-making equipment. But critical details were missing. The so-called objective turns out to be a Shiite mosque complex. And, privately, U.S. officials say they were going after Shiite militiamen linked to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who were allegedly using the complex as an interrogation and torture center.

The U.S. military continues to deny, though, that troops entered a mosque. But troops did, in fact, enter a Shiite prayer hall, which to Shiites is in fact the same as a mosque. And these repeated U.S. denials have infuriated Shiites. The Minister of the Interior, a Shiite who does not have good relations with the Americans, has denounced the U.S.-Iraqi military operation. He, like residents and Moqtada al-Sadr, claim U.S. troops killed unarmed worshippers. The governor of Baghdad has now broken off all cooperation with the U.S. military. And a prominent member of the Shiite ruling coalition has called for the American military to hand over all security operations to Iraqis now.

BLOCK: Now, you said you're hearing one thing privately. Why wouldn't the U.S. publicly say, we were going after Shiite militias. They've been targeting Iraqis, kidnapping and torturing them.

GARRELS: You know, that's a question I can't answer. I mean, perhaps because the operation went wrong somehow. Whatever the merits of the operation, U.S. pressure on Shiite officials to rein in Shiite militias is creating a lot of ill feeling here. Shiite officials believe U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is taking sides against them, that he's blaming Shiites for everything. And Shiite officials also accuse Khalilzad of trying to undermine the gain Shiites made in the elections by insisting Sunni and secular parties get key positions in a new government of national unity. Whatever this raid was supposed to do has undercut Khalilzad's efforts and complicated negotiations on a new government.

BLOCK: What reaction has there been to the raid from the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr?

GARRELS: Well, his staff denies the U.S. account. The allegations against Sadr's militia are highly loaded and explosive, but because of Sadr's popularity with a certain segment of the population and growing Shiite impatience with Sunni attacks, he seems to be getting support. Sadr is a new, potent political force here. He's a key backer of Ibrahim al-Jaafari and his efforts to continue as Prime Minister.

BLOCK: And there was this incident that we've been talking about in Baghdad yesterday, also the attack this morning at the army recruiting center in Mosul. What can you tell us about the overall level of violence going on now?

GARRELS: It's sadly the same continuing drumbeat. At least 21 more bodies were found, many with nooses around their necks, and mortar and bomb attacks killed 11 in Baghdad and other towns. Another company has been raided by masked men in police uniforms with 16 employees kidnapped.

You know, Shiites are angry that the U.S. Ambassador and media reports focus now on the killing of Sunnis, pointing out, you know, they've been victims for months and they continue to be victims. Their problem is that they are now in charge of the government, but they appear to have lost control.

BLOCK: NPR's Anne Garrels, in Baghdad. Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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