BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – The U.S. military fired rockets at a target near a major hospital in eastern Baghdad on Saturday, wounding 20 people and damaging a number of ambulances, the head of the hospital said.
No patients were wounded at the hospital in the Sadr City stronghold of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, but 20 people at the scene of the blasts had been hurt, said Dr. Wi’am al-Jawahiri, manager of the al-Sadr hospital.
Jawahiri said windows at the hospital were shattered when three missiles hit what the U.S. military in Iraq called a militant “command and control” centre around 10.00 a.m.
“While I believe the target was not the hospital, we could have been informed before they did such a thing. At least we could have taken some precautions,” Jawahiri told Reuters.
The U.S. military said precision-guided munitions were used to destroy the militant facility in Sadr City, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling Shi’ite gunmen loyal to Sadr for several weeks as part of a big government crackdown on militias.
Such weapons could either be rockets fired from launchers on the ground or helicopters.
Colonel Jerry O’Hara, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the operation was “time sensitive” and targeted a “command and control” centre that was used to plan attacks against the Iraqi people as well as Iraqi and U.S. security forces. “We take great care to prevent any collateral damage and will continue to do so. We don’t target civilians and regret any casualties,” O’Hara said.
Asked why a missile strike was launched so close to the hospital during the middle of the morning, he said: “The real question should be why these criminal elements seem to always put the Iraqi people at risk by using facilities to coordinate their attacks so close to public places.”
A “battle damage assessment” was being carried out, he said.
Reuters Television pictures showed a destroyed building not far from the hospital, one of two main medical facilities in the crowded Shi’ite slum of Sadr City, home to 2 million people.
Several ambulances were badly damaged, along with a number of civilian cars.
The latest attack came after a night of more violence in Sadr City. The U.S. military said American and Iraqi forces killed 14 gunmen in battles overnight.
Hospital officials said 14 people had been killed and 25 wounded following the clashes. It was not immediately clear if the dead and wounded were gunmen or civilians.
The U.S. military has been carrying out air strikes on gunmen nearly every day in the militia bastion since fighting erupted more than a month ago.
It says militants have fired more than 700 rockets and mortars at various targets during that period, mostly at the Green Zone government and diplomatic compound. Many have been fired from within Sadr City.
The U.S. military blames rogue elements of Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia for the rocket fire. It accuses Iran of arming, funding and training those militants, a charge Tehran denies.
On Saturday, an Iraqi delegation was expected to return from Tehran after showing officials there evidence of Iranian support for Shi’ite militias.
The Iraqi government has until now been restrained in its criticism of its Shi’ite neighbour, but has been upset by the recent discovery of large amounts of Iranian-made weapons.
The U.S. military said this week that “very, very significant” amounts of Iranian weaponry had been found in the southern city of Basra and also Baghdad during an offensive against militiamen in those cities that began in late March.
Some of those arms were made in 2008, the military says.