MAHMUDIYAH, Iraq — An unprecedented firefight between a Shiite militia and a Sunni tribe broke out on the edge of the city here, the latest sign of heightened sectarian tensions in this demographically mixed area 25 miles south of Baghdad.
U.S. troops kept their distance from the gunbattle that erupted after several mortar rounds lobbed into the city appeared to target a local headquarters compound of the Mahdi militia, a Shiite-run organization that has operated discreetly here for months.
“That is the first time we’ve seen the Mahdi militia go on the offensive during normal hours,” said Capt. Jared Bordwell, the company commander who oversees the city for the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
“If that were to continue, that would be a real concern,” Bordwell said Sunday.
U.S. troops overseeing this restive area have dramatically shifted their focus in recent days since the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra sparked sectarian violence across the country.
Patrolling the city center, enforcing a nationwide curfew and keeping watch for signs of sectarian unrest have drained precious time and resources from the traditional fight against pockets of Sunni insurgents in the outlying farmlands, soldiers say.
The firefight started when about 30 armed men set out from a Mahdi army compound and headed west toward the city’s edge, near the homes of a Sunni tribe known to sympathize with insurgents who attack U.S. troops.
After reports of machine-gun fire and mortar rounds, the Iraqi police and Iraqi army responded. The Mahdi militia fired on an Iraqi army unit, which returned fire and the gunbattle ended soon afterward, Bordwell said.
The Iraqi army said three or four Mahdi militia members were injured in the fight, Bordwell said. It was unclear whether the Sunni fighters took any casualties.
The Mahdi militia has been operating openly in Mahmudiyah in recent weeks, intimidating Sunni residents and possibly killing some of them, according to U.S. intelligence reports.
But the Mahdi militia members avoid confrontation with U.S. troops by concealing their weapons when U.S. troop patrols approach. Troops here say they will seize weapons or detain militia members who operate openly.
U.S. troops were pleased to see local Iraqi security forces respond, allowing a patrol of U.S. soldiers to monitor the situation from a safe distance.
“I don’t want to get in the middle of that,” Bordwell said. “I don’t want to pick a side. It would be the first people who engaged us and it would probably make a bigger mess than was already there.”