Image: A militiaman holding a RPG
A militiaman, holding a grenade launcher, runs in the street of the Shiite enclave of Sadr City, Baghdad, on Wednesday. Clashes between Iraqi security forces and Shiite militiamen continued in the capital a day after top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus called for a suspension of U.S. troop withdrawals. news services
updated 4/9/2008 6:00:09 PM ET 2008-04-09T22:00:09

Errant mortar shells slammed into houses and a funeral tent Wednesday, leaving three children among the dead during clashes in a Shiite militia stronghold under siege by American and Iraqi forces on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. capture of the capital.

The fighting came as the U.S. military announced the deaths of five more soldiers. That raised the number of American troop deaths to 17 since Sunday.

Many Iraqis said hopes that followed the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein have been quashed.

"On this day five years ago we were dreaming of a bright future, but now we know that our dream has turned into a long nightmare," said Khalid Ibrahim, a 45-year-old teacher from the mainly Sunni area of Azamiyah.

In many ways, Baghdad resembles more of a war zone than it did on April 9, 2003, when American Marines stormed into the capital and pulled down a bronze statue of Saddam with the help of dozens of Iraqis.

The city of some 6 million people has largely been carved up along sectarian lines, a patchwork of neighborhoods surrounded by 10-foot-high concrete walls and dotted with checkpoints.

Violence declined last year and early this year following a cease-fire by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an influx of some 30,000 additional American troops and a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq.

But a recent government crackdown on al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia has provoked fierce retaliation, underscoring the fragility of the security gains.

For the Bush administration, the clashes over the past two weeks have served as an unwelcome backdrop to congressional hearings in Washington by the top two U.S. officials in Iraq — Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Petraeus testimony
Petraeus told lawmakers Wednesday that he is unlikely to call for another troop buildup in Iraq, even if security deteriorates after the extra American soldiers return home this summer.

To prevent violence in connection with the anniversary, Baghdad authorities banned traffic citywide from 5 a.m. to midnight.

The streets around Firdous Square — where Saddam's statue used to stand — were largely empty on Wednesday. A few pedestrians passed through, carrying plastic shopping bags. Police officers sat at a checkpoint, ready to stop any unauthorized vehicles.

Al-Sadr called off a mass anti-U.S. demonstration he had planned for Wednesday after his followers in the south complained that Iraqi security forces were preventing them from traveling to Baghdad.

But street battles continued Wednesday in Sadr City, a sprawling district of some 2.5 million people.

Masked militiamen fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at U.S.-backed Iraqi troops throughout the day, and hospital officials said six people were killed and 15 wounded in overnight gunbattles.

At 10 a.m., two mortar shells apparently fired by suspected Shiite extremists against the security forces fell short and instead struck a funeral tent and a house, killing seven people including three children, and wounding 27, according to police and hospital officials.

Associated Press photos showed men rushing three little dark-haired girls to the hospital, their clothes spattered with blood.

Nearly two hours later, a mortar attack struck another house, killing seven more people and wounding 36.

The U.S. military said a drone launched a Hellfire missile at two gunmen shooting at government forces in a different part of Sadr City, killing both men.

Continued instability
The fighting in Sadr City has taken a heavy toll on civilians, forcing hundreds to flee the sprawling district amid complaints of food shortages and fears of getting caught in the crossfire.

The Baghdad military command announced that a 2-week-old vehicle ban in Sadr City would be lifted on Saturday, and that a separate vehicle ban in another Shiite area, Shula, would end Friday.

Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said Tuesday that 82 militants, 36 civilians and 37 soldiers had been killed since March 16 in fighting in Baghdad, mostly in Sadr City.

"Our situation and life is worse than it was during Saddam's time. The occupation and the Iraqi governments have set us back decades," said Hazim Khazim, an unemployed 26-year-old teacher from Sadr City. "We expected a good future, but now we are without a future and our only hope is only to survive one more day in this violent country."

American troops also have been hit hard. The U.S. military's death announcements do not usually specify the locations of attacks. But many — including a soldier who was killed by a roadside bomb Wednesday — have been in northeastern Baghdad, a mainly Shiite area that would include Sadr City.

One other U.S. soldier died Tuesday in a roadside bombing to the east of Baghdad and another Wednesday to the north of the capital.

Two soldiers assigned to the division in Baghdad also died Wednesday of injuries not related to combat. The deaths — which occurred about an hour apart — were announced separately in statements that provided no further details, saying the incidents were under investigation.

The U.S.-protected Green Zone, which houses the American and British embassies and much of Iraq's government, also was struck again by rockets or mortars early Wednesday, although no casualties were immediately reported.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani called on the Sadrists to comply with a government ultimatum issued Sunday to disband the Mahdi Army or face political isolation.

"We have high hopes that they will respond to the call ... and work as a respectable and dignified political (movement) with a role in parliament and in political life," he said in a television interview.

Violence also persisted in northern Iraq. A double car bombing targeting a checkpoint in Mosul killed three policemen and a civilian, police Brig. Gen. Khalid Abdul-Sattar said. The U.S. military confirmed that three Iraqi police were killed but not the civilian.

Training camp destroyed
Also on Wednesday, the U.S. military said troops destroyed an al-Qaida training camp north of Baghdad last week that contained a large weapons cache of missiles, machine guns and mortar rounds.

A U.S. Special Forces team descended on the camp in the town of Balad, in Salahuddin province, after intelligence reports suggested an old radar station was being used by insurgents, the military said in a statement.

They found a cache that included more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition, surface-to-air missiles, machine guns, rockets, suicide-vest charges, mortar rounds, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and warheads, the statement said.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched several operations this year in Salahuddin and other northern provinces, where Sunni Islamist al-Qaida has regrouped after being pushed out of western Anbar province and Baghdad.

Petraeus told Congress on Tuesday the threat posed by al-Qaida in the country had been reduced significantly, partly because thousands of Sunni Arabs had turned against the group because of its indiscriminate killings.

In its statement, the U.S. military said air strikes destroyed the compound and the weapons were taken away or destroyed. The operation was conducted from April 2-5.

Petraeus told lawmakers Tuesday that security gains in Iraq were "fragile and reversible."

Petraeus said that after five extra combat brigades had left Iraq by July he would "undertake a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation." But he declined to estimate how many U.S. troops would be in Iraq at the end of 2008.

Iraq's government had no objection to the pause, spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

"The Iraqi government thinks Petraeus' decision is correct," he told Reuters.

The United States is withdrawing about 20,000 combat troops from Iraq through July. It has 160,000 troops in Iraq now.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2013

Video: Iraq, five years after Saddam statue toppled


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