BAGHDAD, Iraq – Three more U.S. troops were killed Monday as Iraqis struggled to bury their dead amid fierce street battles between Shiite Muslim militias and Iraqi and American soldiers.
In one of the most intense days of fighting in the nation’s capital involving U.S. troops in recent months, American helicopters fired at least four Hellfire missiles and an Air Force jet dropped a bomb on a suspected militia target. Rockets and missiles launched from militia strongholds pounded U.S. bases around the city, where U.S. troops also came under fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. Targets included the Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and most Iraqi government buildings are located.
The latest casualties brought to nine the number of U.S. combat deaths since Sunday. At least 18 U.S. forces have been killed in and around Baghdad since March 25, when fighting spread to the capital following Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to launch an offensive against Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra.
The fighting and rising death toll are likely to raise new questions about the role of the U.S. in Iraq, and how to define progress or success, as Gen. David H. Petraeus appears before Congress on Tuesday with his latest assessment of the war. The long-awaited testimony will be before committees that include all three remaining U.S. presidential candidates: Republican John McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, all of whom will be afforded the chance to question the general.
The fighting in Baghdad has been the most intense since January 2007, when American helicopters and warplanes blasted central Baghdad’s Haifa Street in an offensive against Sunni Arab insurgents. The following month, President Bush announced the deployment of 28,500 extra American forces to quell Iraq’s violence and give Iraqi leaders time to mend the political rivalries seen as the root of the fighting.
Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is sure to be questioned about the upward spiral of American deaths and the continuing conflict between Iraqis, in his Washington appearance.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, said his questioning would focus on al-Maliki’s decision to move forward with his offensive against militias in Basra without informing U.S. commanders in Baghdad about the details.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who opposes al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and the ongoing U.S. presence in Iraq, says the offensive unfairly targeted his Mahdi Army militia and he has rejected al-Maliki’s demands to disarm it.
“I’m going to want a lot of details about the Basra operation,” Levin said. “We ended up sending in support in the middle of their sectarian conflict.”
Military officers based in Baghdad acknowledged that the steady decline in violence over the last year, which Petraeus is expected to illustrate Tuesday, will be marred by the latest developments.
Last year was the deadliest for Americans since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. The latest clashes have overshadowed six months of security gains and likely have dashed any hopes of withdrawing more U.S. forces after July, when the extra 28,500 troops go home. They have also shown that Iraq’s deadly rivalries extend far beyond Sunnis vs. Shiites.
As well, deadlines set for political benchmarks in Iraq, such as rewriting the constitution or legislation to manage the oil industry, have been missed.
In Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, where al-Sadr’s militia holds sway, fighting to dislodge gunmen from the dusty alleyways and dilapidated buildings had left at least 41 Iraqis dead and 185 wounded since Sunday, hospital officials said. They included 16 killed Monday.
Thousands of Sadr City residents were fleeing to the relative safety of neighboring areas to escape the clashes. A driving ban for Sadr City remained in place, leaving residents no choice but to pile bundles onto their heads or under their arms and trek past U.S. and Iraqi armored vehicles stationed on the edge of the sprawling neighborhood in eastern Baghdad.
Some carried coffins and loaded them into trucks waiting outside Sadr City, which were driven to the holy city of Najaf for burial services.
Saad Mohammed was among those being buried Monday. A friend, Wisam Kadhim, said Mohammed was mortally wounded in a U.S. air strike Sunday and had left behind a wife and two children. “His family couldn’t make a funeral for him, so we, his friends, made a small funeral,” said Kadhim. Few people showed up, he said, because they feared being caught in cross-fire.
A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Steven Stover, rejected Iraqi allegations that U.S. air strikes and gunfire have killed mainly civilians.
“There might be some civilians that are getting caught, but for the most part, we’re killing the bad guys. We’re very precise,” he said, adding that many air strikes had been called off when it was not possible to get a “clean hit” that would avoid hitting non-combatants.
The latest U.S. casualties brought to at least 4,023 the number of American forces killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion of March 2003, according to www.icasualties.org. Eleven troops have died so far this month, including at least three in rocket attacks on U.S. bases.
U.S. military officials said the casualties were not so much the result of accurate firing but of the number of attacks being launched. “If you shoot enough rockets eventually you will hit a valuable target, which for us is people, not structures,” said a senior American military official in Baghdad.
The huge Jamila wholesale market in Sadr City was in flames Monday afternoon after an apparently errant mortar strike. Police said firefighters would not drive to the area because they were afraid of being caught in fighting. Other mortars fell short of their targets and dropped in residential or commercial districts.