U.S. helicopters pounded an area near a Shiite mosque with heavy machine-gun fire Friday, killing two militants just ahead of the start of weekly prayer services and outraging preachers loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The attack took place as al-Sadr's militia is increasingly showing signs of impatience with a U.S.-led push to secure Baghdad, raising fears it might resume its campaign of violence after more than two months of laying low.
The U.S. military said American soldiers called for support and cordoned off the area after they were attacked by small-arms fire from the Ali al-Baiyaa mosque in a religiously mixed neighborhood in western Baghdad at about 9:45 a.m.
The military first denied reports by witnesses and Iraqi state TV that helicopters opened fire during the clash near the blue-domed mosque, but it issued a second statement hours later saying it had determined that the aircraft fired about 100 rounds of 30 mm ammunition.
After killing two militants, the soldiers searched nearby buildings, found chemicals believed to be bomb-making materials and detained an Iraqi civilian, the military said. Iraqi soldiers searched the mosque, but found no weapons or suspects.
No coalition casualties were reported, and damage to the mosque was limited to several bullet holes, according to an Associated Press photographer at the scene. Witnesses said four people were killed and seven or eight wounded, but that could not be confirmed.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, said the Bush administration will take into account Iraq's political progress when deciding this summer whether to bring home some of the thousands of extra troops the U.S. has sent to tamp down violence here.
His remarks during a visit to Baghdad reflected U.S. efforts to strike a balance between reassuring the Iraqis of America's support and pressuring their leaders to use this opportunity to show they are capable of bringing the country together and averting a full-scale civil war.
"Our commitment to Iraq is long-term, but it's not a commitment to having our young men and women patrolling Iraq's streets open-endedly," Gates told reporters.
Al-Maliki, in a statement released by his office after meeting with Gates, said, "The main problem suffered by Iraq is political, not a security one." His office also said the prime minister is optimistic Iraqis will overcome their sectarian, ethnic and political differences.
In a sign of the difficulties in stemming the violence, the military said U.S. soldiers are building a three-mile wall in Baghdad to protect a Sunni Arab area surrounded by Shiite neighborhoods.
When the wall is finished, the minority Sunni community of Azamiyah, on the eastern side of the Tigris River, will be gated, and traffic control points manned by Iraqi soldiers will be the only entries, the military said.
"Shiites are coming in and hitting Sunnis, and Sunnis are retaliating across the street," said Capt. Scott McLearn, of the U.S. 407th Brigade Support Battalion, which began the project April 10 and is working "almost nightly until the wall is complete," the statement said.
The fighting around the Ali al-Baiyaa mosque broke out just over an hour before traditional weekly prayer services were to begin, forcing worshippers from the mosque to attend other services.
Shiite clerics from al-Sadr's movement denounced the attack from their pulpits, four days after six Sadrist ministers quit the Cabinet to protest Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's refusal to back calls for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
‘This government does not represent our people’
"Let the government see what the occupiers are doing to our people," Abdul Hadi al-Mohammadawi said in his sermon in the Shiite holy city of Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad. "This government does not represent our people. It represents the occupiers' will."
Sheik Suhail al-Iqabi also condemned the "criminal acts by occupiers" during his sermon in Baghdad's Sadr City Shiite enclave, a stronghold of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. Al-Sadr, who U.S. authorities say is in Iran despite denials from his followers, had ordered his militia fighters to put away their weapons and go underground before the security crackdown began on Feb. 14. U.S. officials had hailed a decrease in the numbers of execution-style killings usually blamed on them.
But a series of high-profile bombings widely blamed on suspected Sunni insurgents has raised concerns about a resurgence of retaliatory sectarian violence, and the number of bodies dumped in the streets of Baghdad has risen recently.
Police reported finding 26 bullet-riddled bodies showing signs of torture Friday in the capital and on the banks of the Tigris downstream. However, the nationwide death toll was down sharply from the previous day, with at least five people killed in attacks elsewhere in Iraq.
A suicide truck bombing killed one Iraqi civilian and wounded eight U.S. troops in Saqlawiyah, 45 miles west of Baghdad, the military said.
The U.S. military announced the death of a Marine in a rocket attack Thursday night before on a base south of the capital. Two others were wounded in the attack on a U.S. base in Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles south of Baghdad, a statement said. At least 3,315 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Also Friday, U.S. forces killed eight suspected insurgents and captured 41 in several raids across Iraq, the military said.