Fighting in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City killed 23 Iraqis on Wednesday, hospital officials said, and the U.S. military reported five troop deaths as April showed signs of becoming the worst month for American forces in Iraq since September.
At least 11 of the latest deaths occurred when mortar shells landed in residential neighborhoods. Men rushed wounded children to overcrowded emergency rooms in Sadr City hospitals, running because of a ban on all vehicular traffic.
In some parts of Sadr City, masked militiamen carrying machine guns and grenade launchers remained on the streets.
Hospital officials have put the death toll in the Baghdad district at more than 70 since Sunday, but it was not clear whether those figures included militia fighters.
Thousands of Sadr City residents have fled for the relative safety of other neighborhoods. Prices in local markets were soaring as supplies dwindled, a result of suppliers’ inability to bring in goods. Iraqi and U.S. forces appeared to be penetrating deeper into the district, one local journalist said.
There were no signs that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was pulling back on his offensive against Shiite militias, which has sparked fighting between Iraqi and U.S. forces and militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Maliki’s deadline for fighters to hand in heavy weapons passed Tuesday, but the latest clashes showed that rocket-propelled grenades, mortars shells, and rockets remained in militia hands.
For part of the day, Baghdad was quieter than in recent days because of a curfew imposed to prevent clashes and protests marking the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003.
Sadr had called for a huge march in Baghdad to mark the anniversary of Hussein’s ouster and to protest the U.S. presence and Maliki’s offensive. The cleric says the offensive, which began March 25 in the southern city of Basra, is targeting his Mahdi Army and is a ploy to cripple the Sadr movement before provincial elections planned for October.
His fighters have risen up against Iraqi and U.S. forces, virtually ending a cease-fire that Sadr announced in August and that was credited with bringing a sharp decline in violence nationwide.
Though U.S. and Iraqi officials maintain that they are targeting “criminal” elements or so-called special groups that did not abide by Sadr’s truce, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker acknowledged Wednesday that the Basra offensive had drawn in others.
“A dangerous development in the immediate wake of the Basra operation was what appeared to be a reunification between special groups and JAM,” he told lawmakers in Washington, using the Iraqi acronym for Sadr’s militia.
Crocker and the commander of American forces in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, gave lawmakers their assessments of the war during two days of hearings in Washington that ended Wednesday.
The increase in troop deaths since the Basra offensive has underscored their contention that security gains of recent months are easily reversed. At least 30 U.S. service members have died in Iraq since the Basra operation began, most of them in Baghdad. At least 19 Americans have died in Iraq this month, representing the highest daily average since September.
The deaths announced Wednesday brought to at least 4,031 the number of American troops killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Brief military statements said three of the troops had died in roadside bomb blasts, two of them in northeast Baghdad and one east of the city. The two others died of “non-combat” injuries, statements said, without giving details.
Also Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that an Iraqi committee had dropped terrorism-related allegations against AP photographer Bilal Hussein. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed the decision and said it looked forward to the “speedy release” of Hussein, who has been held for two years by U.S. military authorities without being charged.
The military detained Hussein in the western province of Anbar in April 2006, when the region was embroiled in fighting between U.S. forces and Sunni Muslim insurgents. Military officials alleged that Hussein’s actions suggested involvement with insurgent activities. Hussein and the AP maintained that he was innocent and said he was only doing his job as a photographer.
According to the AP, an Iraqi judicial committee had ruled Monday that an amnesty law passed by Iraq’s parliament in February affecting detainees being held without charges should clear the way for Hussein’s release. It was not immediately clear when that could take place.
Special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.