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In Iraq, a Surge in U.S. Airstrikes

Since clashes broke out in eastern Baghdad in late March the U.S. Army has fired more than 200 hellfire missiles in Baghdad, killing over 251 people. A pilot describes his experiences.

Shortly after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an operation in late March to crack down on Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra, Shiite fighters in Baghdad stepped up mortar and rocket attacks against the Green Zone, the fortified area housing many U.S. and Iraqi officials. A handful of Americans were killed in those attacks.

The U.S. military responded by targeting fighters from the air, firing Hellfire missiles almost daily into Sadr City, a vast and impoverished district that is the Baghdad stronghold of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. U.S. forces have also supported Iraqi troops on the ground.

Many residents described the recent military operations in Sadr City as indiscriminate attacks. Civilian deaths and damage to homes were key reasons Sadrist leaders demanded that U.S. troops remain on the sidelines of an Iraqi Army incursion into Sadr City this week that has significantly reduced violence there.

At a sprawling air base on the outskirts of Baghdad, Edens, Katzenberger and their colleagues live in small trailers surrounded by blast walls, play volleyball on sand courts and eat at an outdoor food court. Many of the pilots are in their 20s.

The pilots sometimes scrawl messages on the five-foot-long missiles strapped to their "birds." During a recent visit to the base, a reporter saw a missile addressed to "Haji," an honorific for people who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Many U.S. soldiers use it to refer dismissively to Iraqis and Arabs in general. Someone wrote "rock this thang" on another.

The small, white trailers adjacent to the airfield where the pilots do paperwork have Christmas lights strung from the ceiling. Two bumper stickers on windows say: "I [heart] Sadr City."

'Cowardly American Bombings'

Just before the missile hit, Zahara was returning home from delivering food to neighbors. She was near the door when her grandmother yelled: "Get inside the house!"

As she began to move, the missile crashed into the house, throwing her behind a set of stairs.

One of Zahara's uncles, Dhia Rahi Shaie al-Koreishi, 34, a taxi driver, and her grandmother, Um Fadhil al-Koreishi, were killed by the blast.

"The heart of this family has been ripped out," said Alaa Rahi Shaie, 29, another uncle, who was stoic in describing the death of his brother. "This is his blood," he said, indicating red splotches in front of his home. "And the remains of his head are over there."

He pointed at a large mound of dirt. A group of young boys dug out the remains and then showed visitors a black bag filled with clumps of hair and scalp.

Family members and neighbors said they didn't see anyone in the area fire rockets. Two black funeral banners hung outside the battered home to honor the dead.

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