Dozens of fighters ambushed a US patrol in a top Shiite militia stronghold, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun bursts as the US push into Sadr City increasingly faces pockets of close urban combat.
US forces struck back on Tuesday with 90kg guided rockets that devastated at least three buildings in the densely packed district that serves as the Baghdad base for the powerful Mahdi Army militia.
The US military said 28 militiamen were killed as the US patrol pulled back. Local hospital officials said dozens of civilians were killed or wounded.
Such street battles — in tight confines and amid frightened civilians — are increasingly becoming a hallmark of the drive into Sadr City and recall the type of head-on clashes last seen in large numbers during last year’s US troop buildup in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
US troops often have fought intense gunbattles as they cleared neighborhoods in Baghdad and former Sunni insurgent havens such as Anbar and Diyala provinces. But roadside bombings and rocket or mortar volleys against bases have been the more frequent mode of attack in recent years.
Meanwhile, two US soldiers were killed in northwestern Baghdad on Tuesday, the military said. One soldier died when his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device. The other died of wounds sustained when he was attacked by small-arms fire, the military said in a statement. No other details were immediately available.
Clashes have intensified in Sadr City since the Mahdi Army leader — the anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr — reiterated his threat of an all-out war against US-led forces last week. US troops, meanwhile, find themselves increasingly drawn into the fight opened by the Iraqi government to cripple the power of Shiite militias.
“We are seeing larger groups of militants actually aggressively attacking Iraqi and US security forces,” said Lieutenant Colonel. Steve Stover, a military spokesman for US troops in Baghdad. “We’ve seen more of the brazen attacks in the daytime recently.”
The ambush on Tuesday came as a US patrol of heavily armored Stryker vehicles and tanks moved along a road where the US military is putting up a concrete barrier — which seeks to cut off the militants’ movements and hamper their ability to fire rockets and mortars at the US-protected Green Zone.
The militia fighters struck with rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun barrages fired from alleys and rooftops, the military said.
As the troops pulled back, one vehicle was hit with two roadside bombs, Stover said. Six US soldiers were wounded.
Stover said 28 militiamen were killed when US forces hit back with rockets.
Officials at two local hospitals said about 25 people had died and several dozen were wounded — mostly civilians. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.
Photos showed men pulling the body of a two-year-old boy, Ali Hussein, from the rubble of a building.
US officials said all precautions are taken to prevent civilian casualties, but blamed the militiamen for taking cover among their neighbors and families.
“The enemy continues to show little regard for innocent civilians, as they fire their weapons from within houses, alleyways and rooftops upon our soldiers,” said Colonel Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad.