A rocket slammed into Baghdad’s city hall and another hit a downtown park as more frightened civilians fled a Shiite militia stronghold where US-led forces are locked in fierce street battles.
The US push in the Sadr City district — launched on Tuesday after an Iraqi government crackdown on armed Shiite groups began in late March — is trying to weaken the militia grip in a key corner of Baghdad and disrupt rocket and mortar strikes on the US-protected Green Zone.
But fresh salvos of rockets from militants arced over the city, wounding at least 16 people and drawing US retaliation that escalated civilian panic and flight to safer areas.
One rocket — apparently aimed at the Green Zone — blasted the nearby city hall. Three 122mm rockets hit parts of central Baghdad, including destroying some playground equipment in a park. An Iraqi police station was damaged by a rocket that failed to detonate, the US military said.
US forces used airstrikes and tank fire against suspected militia positions following a rocket attack late on Monday in Sadr City, the military said. At least six people were killed.
An attack aircraft later fired two Hellfire missiles and killed three militants who were planting a roadside bomb in the Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad on Tuesday, the military said.
At least four civilians were killed in the clashes, hospital officials said.
More families, meanwhile, sought refuge in neighborhoods away from the fighting, which showed no sign of easing.
A senior member of the municipal council in Sadr City estimated 8,000 families had fled the teeming slum since the battles began six weeks ago.
A woman, said many families had left Sadr City.
“They fled bombardment. Their houses were destroyed and sewage floated into their homes,” she said outside Sadr City — the stronghold for the Mehdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Meanwhile in Washington, a new Democratic-sponsored war spending bill in the House of Representatives would prohibit using US aid to rebuild towns or equip security forces in Iraq unless Baghdad matches every dollar spent, lawmakers said on Tuesday.
The US$195 billion measure, to be voted on as early as today, would fulfill US President George W. Bush’s demands for military and diplomatic operations in Iraq and Afghanistan until the next president can set his or her own policy early next year.
Lacking the votes to force troops home as they would like, Democrats are using the bill instead to assert to voters that the war is to blame for the country’s economic woes.
In addition to restricting US aid, the bill would require Bush to negotiate an agreement with Baghdad to subsidize the US military’s fuel costs so troops operating in Iraq are not paying any more than Iraqi citizens are.
A recent report found that troops are paying the market average of US$0.80 a liter for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel, while Baghdad subsidies put domestic consumption inside the country at about US$0.34 a liter.
Iraq is looking toward a massive budget surplus this year. With the country’s oil production on the rise and record-high fuel prices, Iraq is expected to reap some US$70 billion in oil revenues.
“In effect, [the bill] says they have to come up with the money like we did,” said Representative John Murtha, chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. Murtha, a Democrat, said “The public has lost confidence” that the US government is committed to forcing Iraq to take responsibility for its own security and reconstruction.