BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – U.S. troops said on Wednesday they killed 15 gunmen overnight in Shi’ite areas of Baghdad where fighting has raged for weeks between militiamen loyal to Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and security forces.
Ground forces and aircraft were involved in several attacks in and around eastern Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement. The first attack began around dusk on Tuesday.
Police said more than two dozen people had been killed in the past 24 hours in both Sadr City, the cleric’s stronghold in eastern Baghdad, and a nearby Shi’ite area called Husseiniya. They said the death toll included two women.
Hundreds have died in Shi’ite areas of Baghdad since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, himself a Shi’ite, launched a crackdown on Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia a month ago.
Sadr has demanded a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and threatened over the weekend to wage “open war” if Maliki did not call off the campaign against his fighters in Baghdad, the southern oil hub of Basra and other Shi’ite areas.
Iraqi forces captured Sadr’s key militia stronghold in Basra on the weekend. Lieutenant-General Lloyd Austin, the number two U.S. military commander in Iraq, told a news conference Iraqi forces had control of the city, which had been under the sway of militias before Maliki launched his crackdown.
In the four days since Sadr issued his threat of war — which could unravel months of security gains while U.S. forces are drawing down -the U.S. military says it killed around 65 fighters in Sadr City and other Shi’ite parts of Baghdad.
Colonel Allen Batschelet, chief of staff to the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, told reporters that militants had fired nearly 700 rockets and mortars in the past month.
Most of those have come from Sadr City, with a large number aimed at the Green Zone government and diplomatic compound. U.S. forces have responded mainly with helicopter missile strikes.
Batschelet said U.S. troops planned to bring services into a southern sliver of Sadr City that they and Iraqi forces entered over the past four weeks, but had no plans yet to move into the remaining parts of the slum of two million people.
Residents say they have endured steep rises in the price of food and a lack of basic services since fighting erupted. “We’re trying to consolidate the gains that we’ve made and bring services into that area where we are operating,” Batschelet told a briefing for reporters at a U.S. base.
In one incident overnight, U.S. troops were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades after a bomb blast in eastern Baghdad, the military said. Soldiers returned fire, killing six gunmen.
In another incident, the military said a drone aircraft spotted two militants putting a mortar tube into a vehicle. The drone fired a Hellfire missile, killing the two.
Maliki has refused to back down in his confrontation with Sadr. The cleric supported the prime minister’s rise to power in 2006 but has since split with him over Maliki’s refusal to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Maliki has threatened to bar Sadr’s movement from provincial elections on Oct. 1 if he does not disband the Mehdi Army.
Sadr’s mass movement, which boycotted the last local elections in 2005, is expected to perform well at the expense of parties that backed Maliki, especially in the Shi’ite south.