The US military said its forces killed an estimated 49 militants during a dawn raid to capture an Iranian-linked militia chief in Baghdad's Sadr City enclave, one of the highest tolls for a single operation since US President George W. Bush declared an end to active combat in 2003.
Iraqi police and hospital officials, who often overstate casualties, reported only 15 deaths including three children. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said all the dead were civilians.
Al-Dabbagh said on CNN that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had met with the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, to protest the action.
Photos showed the bodies of two toddlers, one with a gouged face, swaddled in blankets on a morgue floor. Their shirts were pulled up, exposing their abdomens, and a diaper showed above the waistband of one boy's shorts. Relatives said the children were killed when helicopter gunfire hit their house as they slept.
One local resident said some of the casualties were people sleeping on roofs to seek relief from the heat and lack of electricity. The Iraqi officials said 52 were wounded in the raid on the sprawling district.
The US military said it was not aware of any civilian casualties, and the discrepancy in the death tolls and accounts of what happened could not be reconciled. US commanders reported no US casualties.
The raid on the dangerous Shiite slum was aimed at capturing an alleged rogue militia chief, one of thousands of fighters who have broken with Muqtada al-Sadr's mainstream Mahdi Army. The military did not say if the man was captured. He was also not named.
The Shiite cleric has ordered gunmen loyal to him to put down their arms. But thousands of followers dissatisfied with being taken out of the fight have formed a loose confederation armed and trained by Iran.
The US operation was the latest in a series that have produced significant death tolls, including civilians, as US forces increasingly take the fight to Sunni insurgents, al-Qaeda militants and Shiite militiamen.
The intensity and frequency of American attacks and raids have grown since the arrival of the last of 30,000 additional soldiers on June 15.
The reinforcements were ordered into Iraq earlier this year by Bush and have inflicted a heavy toll on militants on both sides of Iraq's sectarian divide. American commanders credit the troop buildup for a sharp drop in the number of attacks and deaths of US soldiers and Iraqi civilians, particularly in the past two months.
As US forces pounded Sadr City, the potential grew for a fresh explosion of fighting on a new front, Iraq's northern border with Turkey.
Early on Sunday, Kurdish separleft the zone, troops were hit by a roadside bomb and continued heavy fire, killing 10 more combatants.
"All total, coalition forces estimate that 49 criminals were killed in three separate engagements during this operation. Ground forces reported they were unaware of any innocent civilians being killed as a result of this operation," the military said.
A local resident who goes by the name Abu Fatmah said his neighbor's 14-year-old son, Saif Alwan, was killed while sleeping on the roof.
"Saif was killed by an airstrike and what is his guilt? Is he from the Mahdi Army? He is a poor student," Abu Fatmah said.
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