U.S. Role Deepens in Sadr City

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

BAGHDAD, April 29 -- A four-hour battle Tuesday between U.S. soldiers and Shiite militiamen left at least 28 Iraqis dead in the capital's Sadr City neighborhood, making it one of the bloodiest days in a month of sustained street fighting.

The clashes underscored how deeply U.S. forces have been drawn into heavy combat in the huge Shiite district since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unexpectedly launched an offensive in southern Iraq last month against Shiite militias, primarily the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Until Maliki's push into the southern city of Basra, U.S. troops were not intensely engaged in Sadr City, a Baghdad neighborhood of roughly 3 million people that was among the most treacherous areas for U.S. forces early in the war.

But the southern offensive set off a violent chain reaction that spread quickly to Shiite sectors of the capital and has severely strained the cease-fire Sadr imposed on his followers in August and recently reaffirmed. U.S. troops, fighting at times Tuesday on foot and backed by air support, are now engaged in the kind of urban battle within Sadr's stronghold reminiscent of the first years of the war.

More than 500 people have been killed and 2,100 injured in Sadr City since fighting erupted there again in late March, according to lawmakers loyal to Sadr. Residents of Sadr City said Tuesday's death toll was at least 50. The U.S. military said it has killed more than 200 fighters in the past month in the area, where it says militiamen have fired 600 rockets and mortars at U.S. and Iraqi targets.

The conflict has pitted Sadr, who leads Iraq's largest militia and one of the most popular Shiite political organizations, against Shiite-led government forces and the U.S. troops backing them. The impoverished Sadr City district has been sealed off by U.S. and Iraqi forces from the rest of the city.

"Sadr City right now is like a city of ghosts," said Abu Haider al-Bahadili, 43, a Mahdi Army fighter who spoke by telephone from Sadr City as spasms of gunfire rang out nearby. "It has turned from a city into a field of battle."

A delegation of leaders from the Sadrist movement is scheduled to meet with Maliki in coming days to try to negotiate an end to the violence, but both sides have indicated they are far from a settlement. Maliki is demanding that Sadr disband the militia, a step seen as unlikely.

The battle Tuesday erupted as U.S. forces tried to evacuate a soldier injured by small-arms fire about 9:30 a.m., according to the U.S. military. During the evacuation, the troops were attacked with roadside bombs, as well as rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire from houses, storefronts, alleyways and rooftops, said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a U.S. military spokesman.

Six U.S. soldiers were wounded, but their injuries were not considered life-threatening. The U.S. military said two soldiers were killed in separate incidents in northwest Baghdad on Tuesday evening, one by small-arms fire and the other by a roadside bomb.

In the Sadr City clash, the U.S. soldiers responded by firing rockets armed with high-explosive, 200-pound warheads, killing 28 fighters, Stover said. In a separate incident in Sadr City, a fixed-wing aircraft dropped a bomb at 5:15 p.m. that killed two fighters firing mortars at a joint U.S.-Iraqi outpost, the U.S. military said.

But Sadr City residents gave a very different accounting of the fighting. They said at least 50 people were killed and 130 injured, many of them women and children.

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