BAGHDAD, Iraq, (AP) -U.S. and Iraqi forces staged raids in Baghdad’s main Shiite militant stronghold Tuesday as part of politically sensitive forays into areas loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Southwest of the capital, three American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb. Meanwhile, police said a car bomb exploded near a park in central Ramadi, killing 18 people; most of the victims were children.
Troops have held back on broad sweeps through the teeming Sadr City slums since a major security operation began earlier this month, targeting militant factions and sectarian death squads that have ruled Baghdad’s streets.
Al-Sadr withdrew his powerful Mahdi Army militia from checkpoints and bases under intense government pressure to let the house-to-house security sweeps move ahead. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and others have opposed extensive U.S.-led patrols through Sadr City, fearing a violent backlash could derail the security effort.
The pre-dawn raids appeared to highlight a strategy of pinpoint strikes in Sadr City rather than the flood of soldiers sent into some Sunni districts.
At least 16 people were arrested after U.S.-Iraqi commandos — using concussion grenades — stormed six homes, police said.
The U.S. military said the raids targeted “the leadership of several rogue” Mahdi Army cells that “direct and perpetrate sectarian murder” — an apparent reference to Shiite gangs accused of carrying out execution-style slayings and torture on Sunni rivals.
The three soldiers killed Tuesday, assigned to a unit based in the capital, were killed by an improvised explosive device, a makeshift mine that is the deadliest killer of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Labed Abbawi, of Iraq’s Foreign Ministry, said envoys from the West and Islamic nations — including Iran, Syria and the United States — are expected to attend a conference next month on efforts to stabilize Iraq.
The meeting, planned for mid-March in the Iraqi capital, is an attempt by the U.S.-backed government to seek greater regional assistance in fighting insurgents and addressing tensions between Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslims and Sunnis.
In Washington, White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said the U.S. “would attend” if invited. Abbawi said that the United States was among those asked to take part.
Perino said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be “a logical attendee,” but said she could not announce anything on Rice’s behalf.
The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, said Tuesday that those execution-style killings had fallen sharply in Baghdad since the security crackdown began.
Figures compiled by The Associated Press from police reports show that the number of bullet-riddled bodies found in the streets this month totaled 628 as of Monday night. That was down from the 1,079 in January and 1,379 in December.
Odierno declined to comment on whether there were special tactics for Sadr City.
“We will go after anyone who we feel is working against the government of Iraq,” he said. “We will keep at this until the people feel safe in their neighborhoods,” Odierno added.
But Baghdad resident Muhand Mihbas, whose brother and six cousins were taken in the sweeps, said the crackdown was making his family uneasy.
“My sons and wife were very terrified,” he complained. “Does the security plan mean arresting innocent people and scaring civilians at night?”
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told Al-Arabiya television that forces “will increase our operations in the coming days.” He said the crackdown in the capital should continue until at least October.
Meanwhile, more bombings struck central Baghdad on Tuesday.
At the popular Kabab Abu Ali restaurant, a bomb left in a plastic bag exploded during the busy lunch hours, killing at least three people and injuring 13. About the same time, a suicide bomber struck an area filled with restaurants and ice cream parlors. At least five people were killed and 13 injured, police said. Earlier, a bomb-rigged car exploded in a parking lot, killing at least two people, police said.
Battles and violence also raged in other parts of Iraq.
In the Wassit province, southeast of Baghdad, Iraqi forces engaged in intense fighting with suspected Sunni insurgents along a key highway, police said. Near the northern city of Mosul, a suicide bomber struck a factory, killing at least four people.
A separate suicide car bombing in Mosul killed at least six policemen and injured 38 police and civilians, said police Col. Aidan al-Jubouri.
Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, have arrested a suspect in the attempted assassination of Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, an aide said.
The aide said the arrest was made after reviewing security camera video from Monday’s blast, which ripped through an awards ceremony at the ministry of public works and killed at least 10 people. Abdul-Mahdi was injured.
The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
The bomb was planted under a chair in the first row of the meeting hall — about 6 feet from the vice president, the aide said. Police initially thought it was hidden under a speakers’ podium.
“Investigations are being done to figure out how the attack was planned,” Abdul-Mahdi told Furat television. Abdul-Mahdi is one of two vice presidents. The other, Tariq al-Hashemi, is Sunni.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani remained in a Jordan hospital but no medical tests were planned, the Iraqi ambassador said.
“He’s in good shape, fully aware and doing well,” Ambassador Saad al-Hayyani told The Associated Press. “There are no tests planned today.”
Talabani, who is Kurdish, was taken to Amman after falling unconscious Sunday. He regained consciousness and his aides blamed the episode on fatigue and exhaustion.
His private physician, Dr. Yedkar Hikmat, said rumors Talabani had heart problems were “categorically wrong.”
In the southern Qadisiya province, Iraqi security forces said they captured 157 suspects linked to a shadowy armed cell called the Soldiers of Heaven, or Jund al-Samaa.
The group was involved in a gunbattle last month with Iraqi forces who accused it of planning to kill Shiite clerics and others in the belief it would hasten the return of the “Hidden Imam” — a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the 9th century. Shiites believe he will return one day to bring justice.