msnbc.com news services
updated 4/19/2008 5:12:30 AM ET 2008-04-19T09:12:30

Twelve people died in overnight clashes in Baghdad's Sadr City district, which has become a chief battleground between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the Mahdi Army of hard-line cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, police and hospital officials said Saturday.

Iraqi troops also kept up the pressure on Shiite militants in the southern city of Basra, where they fanned out through a Mahdi Army stronghold.

Officials later announced that a roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier in Iraq's northern Salahuddin province. The attack occurred Friday while troops were conducting a patrol.

In Sadr City's general hospital, officials said 71 people were admitted for treatment of injuries received in the fighting. The hospital also received 12 bodies, said an official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to release the information.

The fighting came amid reports that Iraqi troops backed up by U.S. forces were trying to recapture a position in the district abandoned a day ago by a company of government soldiers.

Concrete wall
Security forces in the area also have come under repeated attack by militants trying to prevent the construction of a concrete wall through the district.

The wall — a concrete barrier of varying height up to about 12 feet — is being built along a main street dividing the southern portion of Sadr City from the northern, where Mahdi Army fighters are concentrated.

American commanders hope that construction of the Sadr City wall, which began Tuesday, will hamper their ability to fire rockets and mortars at the Green Zone, the central Baghdad district where government offices and the U.S. Embassy are located.

Mass desertions
The zone has been regularly shelled since the Iraqi military launched an operation against Shiite militias in Basra on March 25. That operation quickly stalled amid fierce resistance from the militants and mass desertions from the security forces.

Militants have used mortars and rockets of various calibers in attacks on the Green Zone.

The U.S. military said one of its attack helicopters located and hit a mortar crew in Sadr City early on Saturday, killing two gunmen and destroying the weapon.

The near-daily clashes in Sadr City since then have fueled worries over a total breakdown of a truce called last year by al-Sadr, with fears of wider violence.

Basra bombarded
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also kept up the pressure on al-Sadr's followers in Basra, launching an operation early Saturday aimed at clearing militants from the Hayaniyah district, a Mahdi Army stronghold in Iraq's oil capital.

Thundering explosions and gunfire could be heard at dawn under the heaviest bombardment since al-Maliki launched a crackdown on the anti-American cleric's followers late last month in the southern city.

The commander of Iraqi forces in Basra, Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furaiji, told Reuters his troops had seized the center of the neighborhood.

"Our troops moved in there, and now they have reached the center of Hayaniyah. Now there are no confrontations, and anyone carrying weapons will be arrested," he said.

British artillery and U.S. warplanes were supporting the Iraqi army operation, which met minimal resistance, military spokesman Maj. Tom Holloway said.

He said that as a show of force British gunners fired a barrage of shells into an empty area near Hayaniyah and U.S. warplanes bombed it.

"This was intended to demonstrate the firepower available to the Iraqi forces," Holloway said.

Clashes were also reported near Nasiriyah, a city about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad. Authorities imposed a curfew on the town of Suq al-Shiyoukh after a firefight in which one militant was killed and six policemen injured.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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