Militants believed to be Shiite Muslims pounded Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone and U.S. and Iraqi outposts with rocket or mortar fire Monday, killing at least four American soldiers in some of the fiercest attacks in weeks.
The U.S. military said it had used attack helicopters and tanks to repel a wave of assaults in the last two days, killing at least 45 gunmen.
Scores of people were injured in the exchanges, many of them bystanders, according to the Iraqi police and hospital officials.
The surge in fighting came despite an appeal by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr to end the bloodletting, which has claimed hundreds of lives since the government began a crackdown against Shiite militiamen last month.
Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is the main target of the crackdown, has threatened “open war” against U.S.-led forces in Iraq. But in a message to his followers Friday, the cleric urged an end to the fighting between Iraqis.
The latest attacks began Sunday, under the cover of a blinding sandstorm, which grounded U.S. helicopters that are used to hunt down the militants. In one incident that evening, the military said U.S. soldiers used tank and small-arms fire to repel a large group of fighters who swarmed a joint U.S.-Iraqi checkpoint, killing 22 militants.
The attacks continued Monday as the heavy blanket of dust that had enveloped the capital began to dissipate.
Hospital officials in Sadr City, the vast Shiite district that has been the focus of recent fighting, said Monday that they had received 24 dead and more than 100 wounded beginning the previous day. The victims included some women and children.
Hospitals regard all patients as civilians unless they arrive in military uniform, making it difficult to determine how many of the casualties may have been combatants.
The four U.S. soldiers were killed by rocket or mortar fire Monday at two outposts, on the east and west sides of the Tigris River, the military said. The attacks also caused a number of injuries, but a spokesman declined to provide a figure.
At least 4,056 U.S. personnel have been killed since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
At least 25 Iraqis, including 10 policemen, were injured as shells rained down on the capital Monday, according to Iraq’s Interior Ministry.
Many of them were victims of rounds that apparently missed their targets and landed in surrounding neighborhoods.
The shelling also caused injuries within the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices, but embassy officials could not immediately say how many.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have moved into the southern third of Sadr City in a bid to curb the rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone, many of which are launched from that area. But U.S. commanders say they have no intention of pressing farther into Sadr City, an area of 2.5 million people that is in effect controlled by the Mahdi Army.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, himself a Shiite, is demanding that Sadr’s followers turn in their medium and heavy weapons along with wanted members of the cleric’s militia. He also has threatened to bar Sadr’s movement from participating in Oct. 1 provincial elections unless it disbands the Mahdi Army.
Sadr’s followers say they have been unfairly singled out, while Maliki’s Shiite and Kurdish allies are allowed to maintain armed wings. The cleric’s movement says the crackdown is a pretext to weaken its chances in the elections.
Iraq’s Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, is attempting to mediate an end to the dispute.
Special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.