BAGHDAD – 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 U.S. forces in Iraq since September.
At least 11 of the Iraqi deaths occurred when mortar shells landed in residential neighborhoods. Men rushed wounded children to overcrowded emergency rooms in Sadr City hospitals, on foot because of a ban on all vehicular traffic. In some parts of Sadr City, masked militiamen bearing machine guns and grenade launchers remained on the streets.
Officials at local hospitals have put the death toll in the neighborhood at more than 70 since Sunday, but it was not clear if those figures included militia fighters.
Thousands of Sadr City residents have fled for 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 neighborhood, one local journalist said.
There were no signs that Prime Minister Nouri al-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 al-Sadr. Al-Maliki’s deadline for fighters to hand in heavy weapons expired Tuesday, but the latest clashes showed that rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and rockets remained in militia hands.
Baghdad had spent part of Wednesday 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.
Al-Sadr had called for a huge march in Baghdad to mark the anniversary of Saddam’s ouster and to protest the U.S. presence and al-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 his political movement in advance of provincial elections planned for October.
His fighters have risen up against Iraqi and U.S. forces, virtually collapsing a cease-fire that al-Sadr announced last August and that was credited with bringing a sharp drop in violence nationwide.
Although U.S. and Iraqi officials maintain that they are targeting criminal elements or so-called “special groups” that did not abide by al-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 acronym for al-Sadr’s militia.