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'Innocent People' Real Victims, Combat Team Commander Says

American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 7, 2004 – Militiamen loyal to radical Shiia cleric Muqtada al- Sadr are hurting innocent Iraqis the most with their attacks on civilian targets, a U.S. military commander in eastern Baghdad's Sadr City district said.

"The biggest casualties of the attacks are the innocent people, mostly children, of Sadr City who become sick and die from standing sewage and contaminated drinking water," said Col. Robert Abrams, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, according to a Multinational Force Iraq news release.

"We were just starting to gain momentum on projects to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Sadr City." The attacks cause work on essential service to halt he said, and every day that happens "is another day people can become fatally ill from not having these services."

Task Force Baghdad soldiers continue to secure roadways from improvised explosive devices, the release said. Due to the heightened IED threat, the task force, in conjunction with the Iraqi police, closed the main road through the Oubaidi Market.

"Closing this road will hurt the business in the market," Abrams noted. The militia attacks "hurt no one but the Iraqi people. They have made the road unsafe for their own people to conduct business."

Abrams said that work stoppages on area improvement projects caused by attacks against multinational forces and civilian targets will have a ripple effect on the local economy in Sadr City, with more than 14,000 jobs in jeopardy. Major projects put on hold during the fighting include restoring a viable sewage system, providing clean water, supplying electricity and removing trash from Sadr City streets, he said.

"(The militiamen) are depriving the good people of Sadr City of not only over 14,000 very necessary jobs, but the essential services that those jobs were building," Abrams added.

In other news from Iraq, a Task Force Baghdad soldier was killed today when his unit came under attack in a western portion of the city. An insurgent rocket- propelled grenade attack killed the trooper during a mounted patrol, a Multinational Force Iraq statement said.

Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit uncovered numerous weapons caches in a cemetery Aug. 5, another news release said today. The Marines found IED-making material, RPGs, AK-47 assault rifles and machine gun ammunition.

Sadr's militia had set up an operating base at the cemetery, the release said, storing large weapon caches and hiding in its sanctuary.

The Marines entered the cemetery supported by Marine and Army helicopters and Air Force jets, and engaged in two days of heavy fighting. Military officials said the assault by the Marines was a result of the militia launching numerous attacks from the sacred site, violating international laws of war and the cease-fire agreement between Sadr and coalition forces. The agreement, negotiated in June by the governor of Najaf and other local civic and religious leaders, included the creation of an exclusion zone for coalition forces around the Imam Ali Shrine and its neighboring cemetery.

Activity increased from the cemetery over time, officials said, and included sporadic offensive operations against Iraqi security forces and several kidnappings of Iraqi police, whose bodies were branded before the militiamen released them. The militia kidnapped their enemies, including innocent civilians, and brought them to the cemetery for torture, execution and burial, the Multinational Force Iraq release said.

Morning attacks Aug. 5 on the main police station in Najaf originated from and were reinforced from the cemetery, officials said. Soon mortar fire from the cemetery targeted and rained down close to Iraqi security forces and Marines until an F-15 fighter jet destroyed the enemy firing position. Militia fighters were continually observed in the holy site replenishing themselves with weapons and ammunition staged there, the release said.

Officials explained that while the international laws of armed conflict normally identify cemeteries as protected places, that status is forfeited if the site is used for military purposes. Marines made every effort to minimize collateral damage and preserve the cemetery, according to the news release.

Another release announced that two Marines from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit were killed as a result of enemy action in Najaf province Aug. 6.

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Multinational Force Iraq
1st Cavalry Division

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