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Across Iraq, battles erupt with Mahdi Army

Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fought US, Iraqi forces in Baghdad and Basra on Tuesday.

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The fighting burnished Sadr's standing among fellow Shiites wary of the US occupation. Over the years, the US has repeatedly accused elements within the Sadrist movement of having ties with Iran and even Lebanon's Hizbullah.

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After rockets hit the Green Zone Sunday, US commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus said the weapons had been provided by Iran.

On Tuesday, Rear Adm. Greg Smith, spokesman for US-led multinational forces in Iraq, blamed the elite Quds units of Iran's Revolutionary Guards for supplying the 22 107-mm and 122-mm rockets that hit the heavily fortified area of Baghdad that is home to the US Embassy.

"We believe the violence is being instigated by members of special groups that are beholden to the Iranian Quds Force and not Sadr.... Although we are concerned, we know that very few Iraqis want a return to the violence they experienced before the surge," he says.

Admiral Smith says US and Iraqi forces were facing two distinct enemies in Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Iranian-trained and supplied special groups. But he adds, "AQI is still Iraq's No. 1 enemy."

There is growing concern, however, that Iran could respond to such US accusations. "This is pretty serious, and if the Iranians do not back down rapidly this will escalate," says Martin Navias, an analyst at Britain's Centre for Defence Studies at King's College in London. "The US has a number of problems with Iran, mainly the nuclear program and its behavior in Iraq. There are many people in the Bush administration who want to hit Iran."

While Iraqi troops fought with Shiite militants in Basra Tuesday, a contingent of Coalition troops, including British and US forces, mobilized at Basra's border with Iran to prevent militiamen from escaping or smuggling in ammunition and weapons, according to a senior security source in the city who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his remarks.

The US military refused to comment on this, citing "security reasons" during ongoing operations, while another spokesman, Col. Bill Buckner, said the Basra operation was Iraqi-led and that the US was providing "limited assistance" mainly in "intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and ... support aircraft."

The US military has regularly accused Iran of smuggling weapons into Iraq over this border, particularly armor-piercing bombs known as explosively formed penetrators (EFP) that have been blamed for the deaths of many US soldiers in Iraq.

"This is a major operation aimed at outlaws and removing all heavy weapons and explosives from the hands of militias inside the city. It has now escalated into fighting between the Iraqi Army and the Mahdi Army because they are resisting," the security official said by phone from Basra, a few hours after the start of the offensive dubbed "The Knights' Assault."