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Al-Sadr followers denounce wall Americans are building
Iraq Violence BAG10 7651810
Iraqi man is treated in hospital after being injured in clashes in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, April 18, 2008. Sporadic clashes started at about 11:00 pm on Thursday and continued till the early hours of dawn of Friday and resulted in the deaths of 2 civilians with 9 others wounded, police said. - photo by Associated Press
    BAGHDAD — Followers of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denounced the American military’s construction of a concrete wall through their Sadr City stronghold in Baghdad, the scene of renewed clashes Friday between his militiamen and U.S. and Iraqi troops.
    The wall — a concrete barrier of varying height up to about 12 feet — is being built along a main street dividing the southern portion of Sadr City from the northern, where al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fighters are concentrated.
    American commanders hope that construction of the Sadr City wall, which began Tuesday, will effectively cut off insurgents’ ability to move freely into the rest of Baghdad and hamper their ability to fire rockets and mortars at the Green Zone, the central Baghdad district where government offices and the U.S. Embassy are located.
    Such walls have gone up in many other Baghdad neighborhoods and have been effective in cutting violence as the movement of insurgents was curtailed. But they have also raised some complaints from residents over difficulties in moving in and out through checkpoints.
    Sadr City has become a chief battleground between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army after a trouble-plagued Iraqi crackdown on Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra last month.
    That crackdown saw some 1,000 Iraqi soldiers refuse to fight the militiamen, and the Mahdi Army was largely able to battle troops to a standstill. The outcome raised questions whether Iraq’s Shiite-majority police and army can stand up to Shiite militias despite millions of dollars spent by the U.S. to train and equip government forces.
    The relatively small-scale clashes since then have fueled worries over a total breakdown of a truce called last year by al-Sadr, with fears of wider violence.
    The Sadrist movement stepped up its rhetoric Friday, denouncing Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government as ‘‘just like Saddam Hussein’s,’’ and the Mahdi Army called on Iraqi troops to put down their weapons and stop fighting.
    At the same time, this week has seen a string of suicide bombings in Sunni regions that have killed 110 people, breaking a reduction in violence blamed on Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida militants.
    The U.S. military on Friday issued a rare warning that it had specific intelligence of al-Qaida plans to carry out suicide bombings in Baghdad ‘‘in the near future.’’
    An Iraqi army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, told government television that the most likely targets were outdoor markets and other public places.
    He urged the public to be on the lookout for abandoned vehicles and people wearing ‘‘suspicious clothes’’ that might conceal explosives and report them to the police.
    In Sadr City, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops launched raids amid a heavy sandstorm Friday afternoon, police in the district said.
    Mortar blasts went off during the fighting, and hospital and Interior Ministry officials reported seven people were killed and dozens wounded, including women and children. Police said a fire broke out in one of the markets of the sprawling slum, home to 2.5 million people.
    The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. There was no immediate U.S. military comment on the raids.
    The raids appeared to be a counterattack after militiamen overnight ambushed an Iraqi position in Sadr City under cover of the sandstorm.
    The commander said an Iraqi army company abandoned their positions under the assault, including their command post in al-Nasir police station. The officer did not know exactly how many troops were involved. An Iraqi infantry company normally has 150 men but reports from the field say many are undermanned and have only 80 to 90.
    The Iraqi military had no immediate comment, but a U.S. spokesman said the situation remained under control on Friday. ‘‘The Iraqi army still hold their positions in Sadr City,’’ said Lt. Col. Steve Stover in an e-mailed statement.
    Regarding the wall, Stover said civilians will be allowed to move in and out of Sadr City but that militants have ‘‘created this environment where security precautions and protection of the people are paramount.’’
    Hazim al-Araji, a senior aide to al-Sadr in Baghdad, said the wall would turn ‘‘the residents to prisoners and the city to a big jail. All Sadr City residents reject this kind of siege on their city.’’
    Al-Maliki’s government also put pressure on al-Sadr’s followers in Basra, issuing an order that they leave their main headquarters in the city because the compound belonged to the government. Al-Sadr officials said they had been given 48 hours to leave.
    Iraqi troops surrounded the building for several hours Friday until withdrawing in the afternoon. Harith al-Idahri, the head of office, said he was waiting for instructions from superiors on how to respond to the order.
    Meanwhile, the U.S. military said a roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier just north of Baghdad on Friday. At least 4,037 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
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    Associated Press writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.