BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A U.S. air strike killed four gunmen in a militia stronghold in Baghdad overnight but police said fighting appeared to ease on Thursday after four days of clashes that have killed around 80 people.
The slum of Sadr City has been the focal point of fighting between black-masked Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and security forces since Sunday.
“Sadr City looks quieter than in previous days although there is still sporadic gunfire,” said a policeman in the slum. “There is movement in the streets. Some shops have reopened.
A roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier in central Baghdad overnight, raising the U.S. military death toll in Iraq to 20 for April, putting this month on track to be the deadliest for American soldiers since September.
The U.S. military said a helicopter fired two Hellfire missiles at gunmen who attacked a joint U.S.-Iraqi security station in Sadr City, killing four.
The fighting, which was sparked late last month when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched a crackdown on Sadr’s militia in the southern city of Basra, has colored an election-year debate in Washington over how fast to withdraw U.S. troops.
President George W. Bush, whose management of the five-year conflict has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans, is due to make a statement on the war at 11:30 a.m. EDT on Thursday.
In it, he is likely to endorse a recommendation by the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, to impose a 45-day freeze on troop withdrawals from July, when additional troops sent under the so-called “surge” are due to come home.
Bush is also expected to announce that the tour of duty for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan will be reduced to one year from 15 months.
On Wednesday, Democrats in Congress grilled Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, saying U.S. interests would be better served by shifting some of the 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to the fight against al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Iraqi military announced late on Wednesday it planned to lift a two-week old vehicle blockade in Sadr City on Saturday.
The blockade has prevented cars from entering or leaving the eastern Baghdad district of two million people, leading to piled up rubbish, food and medicine shortages, and what residents have described as a sense of claustrophobia.
A Baghdad-wide vehicle ban was imposed on Wednesday to prevent a violent spread of unrest on the fifth anniversary of the capital’s fall to U.S. troops.
Despite that, some 23 people were killed in Sadr City clashes, Iraqi security sources said, and the United States announced the deaths of 5 more U.S. soldiers.
U.S. military deaths have averaged roughly one a day over the past six months, but the number has spiked in April.
Maliki threatened this week to bar Sadr’s movement from the political process in Iraq if the cleric refused to disband his militia. Sadr backed Maliki’s rise to power in 2006 but split with the prime minister a year ago when Maliki rebuffed demands to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Sadr responded with a threat to formally scrap a ceasefire he imposed on his Mehdi Army last August, and which has been credited with helping reduce violence in the country in the latter half of 2007 and early months of this year.