BAGHDAD – A rocket slammed into Baghdad’s city hall and another hit a downtown park Tuesday as more frightened civilians fled a Shiite militia stronghold where U.S.-led forces are locked in fierce street battles.
The American push in the Sadr City district – launched 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 U.S.-protected Green Zone.
But fresh salvos of rockets from militants arced over the city, wounding at least 16 people and drawing U.S. retaliation that escalated civilian panic and flight to safer areas.
One rocket – apparently aimed at the Green Zone – blasted the nearby city hall. Three 122 mm 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 U.S. military said.
U.S. forces used airstrikes and tank fire against suspected militia positions following a rocket attack late 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 added.
At least four civilians were killed in the clashes, hospital officials said.
The latest battles came as the Pentagon announced plans to cut U.S. troop strength by about 3,500 toward its goal of withdrawing the bulk of its “surge” forces sent last year into Baghdad and surrounding areas.
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. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of security reasons. The figure could not be independently verified.
For Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, the crackdown is a test of his determination to exert control. He has vowed to disarm all militants even as he faces accusations from Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters of committing crimes against his own people.
The crackdown also has sharpened tensions between the United States and Iran. Washington accuses Iran of helping train and arm some Shiite factions in Iraq. Tehran denies the charges.