U.S. troops kill 45 in Iraq clashes

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military said Monday that it had killed 45 militants in two days of fierce fighting in northeast Baghdad, signaling that some Shiite Muslim extremists are defying hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's call for a cease-fire against Iraqi troops. Four U.S. soldiers also were killed Monday in rocket or mortar attacks in Baghdad, the military said.

The battles between militants and U.S. and Iraqi security forces in and around the Shiite slum of Sadr City were the bloodiest in weeks, and residents said that many of the casualties were civilians. The clashes were accompanied by a series of mortar attacks launched from Sadr City into the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government buildings.

The militants appeared to use the cover of a dust storm that blew into Baghdad on Sunday and shrouded the city in a sandy, suffocating haze well into Monday morning. The storm grounded American military aircraft for several hours and prevented aerial patrols of militant hideouts, U.S. officials said.

In the deadliest incident, the U.S. military said that "a large group" of fighters attacked an Iraqi security checkpoint in northeast Baghdad on Sunday evening, peppering the installation with small-arms fire. American forces who were supporting the checkpoint rolled in with Abrams tanks and fired back, killing 22 of the attackers.

On Monday, U.S. troops fired tank rounds and a missile on a group of armed attackers, killing seven of them, the military said. Sixteen more militants were killed in other firefights Sunday.

Several mortar shells struck the Green Zone, including one that landed near a compound housing Iraqi civilians. Iraqi police said that five people were injured, among them a child.

The attacks came just days after Sadr, the fiery anti-American cleric, urged his followers not to target Iraqis but to concentrate their firepower on American "occupation forces." Sadr had earlier called for "open-ended war" against the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, but last week changed his position to avoid a direct confrontation with Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces.

U.S. and Iraqi troops have been locked in battle with Shiite extremists in Sadr City for weeks, but the violence and its civilian toll appear to be intensifying. Imam Ali Hospital, one of the main hospitals in Sadr City, took in 35 dead bodies since Sunday afternoon, including many women and children, said Alaa Yaser, a medical assistant there.

The fighting has besieged the densely populated slum, home to some 2.5 million people, where Iraqi news reports estimate that some 300 people have been killed in the past week. Residents say that the hospitals are overflowing with dead and injured civilians, food prices are skyrocketing, main roads are blocked and electricity and drinking water are scarce.

"The morgues ...are full with the bodies. Every day I see about five coffins leaving the city," said Hussein al Rubaie, a 37-year-old shopkeeper. A middle-aged male relative was shot in the hand Sunday as he sat outside his home, Rubaie said.

His neighborhood has been without electricity for five days, and many of the water pumps they rely on for drinking water are broken. At night, families gather in one room to sleep, afraid of being hit by stray fire, Rubaie said.

The U.S. military has denied targeting civilians and blamed the siege of Sadr City on so-called special groups, insurgent gangs that are defying Sadr's cease-fire and are armed with Iranian-manufactured weapons.

"We are not preventing food, water, emergency vehicles from entering (or) exiting Sadr City," said Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a U.S. military spokesman. The recent mortar and rocket attacks indicate that insurgents "are using the area as a safe haven, and a staging area for their attacks," Stover said.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded near a convoy of American military vehicles in the Amil section of the city, injuring four civilians, including a woman and child, Iraqi police said. Residents said that a gunbattle erupted following the explosion, but no U.S. casualties were immediately reported.

Monday's attacks coincided with the birthday of Saddam Hussein, and at his gravesite in the village of Al Auja, 100 miles north of Baghdad, a group of children laid flowers and sang songs memorializing the former dictator.

(Raviya H. Ismail of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader and McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi, Jinan Hussein and Hussein Kadhim contributed.)