BAGHDAD, (AP) -Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned a U.S. raid Saturday in Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr City slum — a politically sensitive district for him — in which American troops searching for Iranian-linked militants sparked a firefight the U.S. said left 26 Iraqis dead.
The U.S. military said all those killed in the fighting were gunmen, some of them firing from behind civilian cars. But an Iraqi official put the death toll lower, at eight, and said they were civilians. Residents also said eight civilians were killed in their homes, angrily accusing American troops of firing wildly during the pre-dawn assault.
Sadr City is the Iraqi capital’s largest Shiite neighborhood — home to some 2.5 million people — making U.S. raids there potentially embarrassing for al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government. The district is also the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who was once al-Maliki’s ally.
“The Iraqi government totally rejects U.S. military operations … conducted without prior approval from the Iraqi military command,” al-Maliki said in a statement concerning the Sadr City raid. “Anyone who breaches the military command orders will face investigation.”
Al-Maliki last year banned military operations in Sadr City without his approval after complaints from his Shiite political allies. The ban frustrated U.S. commanders pushing for a crackdown on the Mahdi Army, blamed for sectarian killings.
Al-Maliki later agreed that no area of the capital was off-limits, after President Bush ordered reinforcements to Iraq as part of the Baghdad security operation.
Also Saturday, the military announced that two American soldiers were charged with the premeditated murder of three Iraqis and with planting weapons on the bodies to cover up the slayings, which took place between April and June near Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley from Candler, N.C., was jailed Thursday in Kuwait, facing three counts each of premeditated murder, obstructing justice and wrongfully placing the weapons. Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval, arrested at his home in Laredo, Texas, faces one count each of premeditated murder and planting a weapon, the military said.
In Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of the capital, police said a suicide bomber blew himself up near a crowd of police recruits, killing at least 23 people and wounding 17. The U.S. military also said a U.S. soldier was killed and three others were wounded Friday when a sophisticated, armor-piercing bomb hit their combat patrol in southern Baghdad.
U.S. troops have discovered a mass grave with as many as 40 bodies near Fallujah in western Iraq, the U.S. military said Saturday. Between 35 and 40 bodies — with gunshot wounds and bound limbs — were discovered at site, the statement said. U.S. military officials are investigating, it said, without elaborating, and it was unclear who the victims were.
On the political front, followers of al-Sadr criticized efforts to form a new coalition of leading Shiite and Kurdish parties. Talk of a new coalition is widely seen as an effort to sideline al-Sadr’s anti-American movement, which holds 30 seats in the 275-member parliament.
“This is a partial agreement that means isolating other groups and no one should be isolated,” Nassar al-Rubaie, a Sadrist lawmaker, said. “The only solution to Iraq’s problems is to set up a national unity government made up of technocrats and not divided on sectarian basis.”
The U.S. military said it conducted two pre-dawn raids in Sadr City, killing 26 “terrorists” who attacked U.S. troops with small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.
An Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, said eight people had died — all civilians — and 20 others were wounded. It was not immediately clear why the death tolls varied.
An American military spokesman insisted all of those killed were combatants.
“Everyone who got shot was shooting at U.S. troops at the time,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver. “It was an intense firefight.”
U.S. troops detained 17 men suspected of helping Iranian terror networks fund operations in Iraq, a military statement said. There were no U.S. casualties.
Witnesses said U.S. forces rolled into their neighborhood before dawn and opened fire without warning.
“At about 4 a.m., a big American convoy with tanks came and began to open fire on houses — bombing them,” said Basheer Ahmed, who lives in Sadr City’s Habibiya district. “What did we do? We didn’t even retaliate — there was no resistance.”
According to Iraqi officials, the dead included three members of one family — a father, mother and son. Several women and children, along with two policemen, were among the wounded, they said.
Houses, a bakery and some other shops were damaged by U.S. tank fire during the assault, Iraqi officials said. In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Sheik Salah al-Obaidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr condemned Saturday’s raids: “The bombing hurt only innocent civilians.”
A policeman wounded in the raid, Montadhar Kareem, said he was on night duty in the Habibiya area when U.S. troops moved in and “began bombing houses in the area.”
“The bombing became more intense, and I was injured by shrapnel in both my legs and in my left shoulder,” Kareem said from a gurney at Al Sadr General Hospital.
Hours afterward, a funeral procession snaked through the streets of Sadr City’s Orfali district. Three coffins were hoisted atop cars.
One resident who goes by the nickname of Um Ahmed, or “mother of Ahmed,” stood outside her home as mourners passed by.
“We are being hit while we are peacefully sleeping in our houses. Is that fair?” she cried. The woman gave only her nickname, fearing reprisal.
The U.S. military statement said American troops opened fire on four civilian cars during the assault — one that failed to stop at a checkpoint, and three others that insurgents were using for cover as they fired on U.S. soldiers.
“Every structure and vehicle that the troops on the ground engaged were being used for hostile intent,” Garver said. Some of the 26 dead were in civilian cars, some had been hiding behind cars and others had fired on U.S. troops from nearby buildings, he said.