BAGHDAD, Iraq — A barrage of up to 35 missiles and mortars slammed into the fortified Green Zone late Tuesday afternoon, in what U.S. and Iraqi officials say is the largest such assault to date on the safest place in Baghdad.
One U.S. soldier, an Iraqi and another person of unidentified national origin were killed. As many as 18 people were injured, among them five U.S. citizens — two military personnel and three contractors.
U.S. officials refused to say where the rounds struck or from where they were fired. However, Iraqi officials, who asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak publicly, told McClatchy Newspapers that the rounds came from near the Sadr City area, the stronghold of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
If confirmed, this would be the boldest attack yet against U.S. and coalition forces inside Baghdad's safe zone, as U.S. forces — strengthened by the recent completion of a troop surge — press military offenses throughout Iraq in hopes of pacifying the nation.
Gen. David Petraeus is scheduled to deliver a progress report to Congress in September on the effectiveness of the surge.
Tuesday's attack rattled the already shaky nerves of those living in the Green Zone.
"I certainly heard a lot of booms," said one U.S. State Department official, who declined to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "Thirty seems to be about the right number."
Many of the 1,000 U.S. Embassy personnel in the Green Zone have complained about the lack of sleeping quarters that are protected from shells. About 100 British and some 50 United Nations workers have been provided hardened shelters. U.S. officials declined to comment on why their staff isn't offered bomb-resistant housing.
The United States is building the largest embassy in the world along the banks of the Tigris River, set to open this fall.
Tensions have been mounting in recent days between the Iraqi government and the Mahdi Army.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki this week criticized elements of rogue Shiite groups which he said have acted to destabilize the government in the name of the Shiite militia.
This week, members of the militia imposed their own curfews in western, Shiite-controlled areas of Baghdad, only to end them within hours.
The U.S. military recently conducted raids in Sadr City, the vast eastern suburb of Baghdad controlled by the Mahdi Army militia. Residents have complained that the raids have killed civilians, which the U.S. military denies.
Iraqi officials told McClatchy that Mahdi Army members typically set up rocket launchers in soccer fields and other open areas on the outskirts of Sadr City. "Usually residents avoid talking to these men out of fear," one said, on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety. "But when someone asks the militiamen, they point their rifles at them and say, 'The Green Zone.' After launching these rockets, they usually leave as fast as they can."
(Drummond reports for the Charlotte Observer.)