BAGHDAD — Insurgents ambushed a U.S. military patrol in the volatile Shiite Muslim slum of Sadr City on Tuesday, provoking a street battle in which American troops killed 28 attackers, the U.S. military said.
The four-hour battle, which left six Americans injured, brought to 73 the number of insurgents U.S. troops had killed in Sadr City since Sunday, days after hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr called on his followers to focus on ending the American occupation of Iraq. Four U.S. soldiers were killed Monday in rocket or mortar attacks.
Sadr City, the cleric's stronghold, has become the focus of fighting in Baghdad over the past month, despite Sadr's renewed calls for his Mahdi Army militia to freeze fighting. Many insurgents are defying his call, attacking U.S. and Iraqi forces with what American military officials say are Iranian-manufactured weapons, raising questions about how much control Sadr retains over his forces — and whether he's serious about ending the violence.
On Sunday and Monday, insurgents used the cover of a sandstorm to launch attacks on U.S. and Iraqi positions and to lob mortars into the heavily fortified Green Zone government complex. Tuesday's fighting began as an ambush in broad daylight.
At about 9:30 a.m., an American patrol came under gunfire by insurgents, the U.S. military said in a statement. As troops were evacuating an injured soldier, two car bombs struck a military vehicle, and insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades at the patrol, wounding three more soldiers.
American troops responded by firing rockets on militants hiding in buildings, in alleyways and on rooftops in the densely packed neighborhood, said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a military spokesman.
"Those targeted were firing weapons at U.S. soldiers," Stover said.
None of the American injuries is life-threatening, the military said.
Residents said that the American rocket attacks leveled three houses. Eyewitnesses reported seeing body parts scattered atop the smoldering rubble.
Officials at Al Sadr Hospital, one of the main hospitals in the slum, said that 43 injured victims were brought in Tuesday afternoon, including six children and four women.
"In addition (there are) many victims we cannot reach because of the bad security situation," said a hospital emergency worker who identified himself only as Mohammed. Another hospital official, who asked not to be identified because of security concerns, said that 1,190 injured victims have arrived at the hospital since March 25.
Salah al Obaidi, a top Sadr spokesman, blamed the escalating violence on "aggressive actions ... from the (Iraqi) government and American forces."
"We have been ordered to freeze Mahdi Army actions, but we cannot prevent them from protecting themselves," Obaidi said.
Sadr had called for "open-ended war" against the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, but last week he changed his position, directing his Mahdi Army to avoid killing Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces and to concentrate instead on pushing out American "occupation forces."
Earlier Tuesday, gunmen shot and killed an Iraqi government official outside his home at about 7 a.m. The official, Dheya al Jodi, a director in the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, was leaving his house in the Atifiyah neighborhood of northern Baghdad.
(Special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Jinan Hussein contributed. Ismail reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)