U.S.-backed Iraqi troops battle Shiite militiamen in Basra and Sadr City

BAGHDAD – Clashes with Shiite militiamen flared in two cities yesterday as a U.S. drone fired two missiles in Basra and U.S.-backed Iraqi troops battled in Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City slum.

The airstrike in Basra – which the military said killed four militants – came after militiamen attacked an Iraqi army patrol with rocket-propelled grenades in the Hayaniyah district, the U.S. military said. A vehicle suspected of containing more weapons and ammunition also was destroyed.

The district has seen some of the fiercest fighting since the Basra offensive began three weeks ago to dislodge militia fighters including anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

Yesterday, the Iraqi government said it was replacing two senior military commanders overseeing operations in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Officials insisted the two – security army commander Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji and police chief Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jalil Khalaf – had not been fired but were being reassigned to positions in Baghdad after their assignments ended.

The two Iraqi officers will be replaced by new security commander Maj. Gen. Mohammed Jawad Huwaidi and new police chief is Maj. Gen. Adil Daham, officials said.

U.S. officials have praised Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the determination he showed in confronting the militias, but they have also said the Basra operation was hastily arranged and badly executed. Critics said it highlighted the Iraqi army’s poor leadership and the low morale among its rank and file after some 1,000 troops deserted or refused to fight in Basra.

But the U.S. military said yesterday that progress was being made.

“In Basra the Iraqi army forces in particular are finding improved support from the local citizens in terms of tips, in terms of their cooperation,” military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner told reporters in Baghdad.

The March 25 offensive touched off an uprising by Shiite militias across southern Iraq and in Baghdad’s Sadr City district, a stronghold for the Mahdi Army.

Fresh clashes broke out in Sadr City between U.S.-backed Iraqi troops and Shiite militiamen, leaving two men dead and 18 other people wounded, police said.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military said two Marines were killed by a roadside bomb in western Anbar province. The statement said the blast occurred on Sunday while their vehicle was under attack by enemy fighters.

At least 4,036 American service members have died since the war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.