A U.S. airstrike targeted a building in Baghdad's Sadr City on Thursday, hours after American soldiers clashed with Shiite militants in fighting that left 15 people dead, police and the U.S. military said.
Meanwhile, the military said that an American soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in central Baghdad, raising the number of American troop deaths to 18 since Sunday.
The renewed violence coincided with the congressional testimony of the Bush administration's top two officials in Iraq — Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Petraeus recommended a pause in drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq while the security situation remains unstable and President Bush is expected to follow his recommendation.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki disagreed with Petraeus' proposal to delay further U.S. troop withdrawals, citing the growing capabilities of Iraq's own security forces.
Disagreement on troops
Petraeus wants the U.S. to complete by the end of July the withdrawal of the 20,000 troops that were sent to Iraq last year, which will leave about 140,000 in the country.
In a 12- to 15-minute progress report, Bush on Thursday announced shorter combat tours, but troops already in Iraq won’t be going home any earlier, at least for now. Bush announced that Army units heading to Iraq after Aug. 1 would serve 12-month tours rather than their current 15-month deployment, a move that war critics say the president had to make to ease strain on the Army.
Bush also endorsed Petraeus' proposal for a 45-day evaluation period to be followed by an indefinite period of assessment before any further pullouts.
Al-Maliki, however, said he disagrees with that decision.
"I believe the American forces can draw down," he told CNN Sunday in an interview. "I don't believe the decision for a drawdown should be paused. ... The more U.S. forces move back until all security responsibilities are handed over and coalition forces remain in a support role. And in a support role, you don't need such a big number."
A senior government adviser said al-Maliki delivered that message to Bush in a 20-minute telephone conversation on Wednesday.
The prime minister told Bush that Iraqi security forces are capable of carrying out their duties and U.S. troops should be pulled out as the situation permits, according to the adviser who sat in on the phone conversation. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the confidential details.
Al-Maliki also appeared to play down Petraeus' claim that Iran has equipped and trained Shiite militiamen fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Khalaf al-Elyan, a Sunni lawmaker who attended a briefing by al-Maliki on Thursday about anti-militia operations in the southern city of Basra last week, said the prime minister had cited a number of neighboring countries which he said had also "interfered" with that crackdown.
The government offensive against Shiite militias in Basra began March 25 and the fighting ended a week later in a cease-fire brokered with the help of the Iranians.
"Beside Iran, al-Maliki said there was interference from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the (United Arab) Emirates," al-Elyan said.
On Thursday, residents continued to flee fighting in the sprawling Sadr City district which is home to some 2.5 million people.
Sadr City is a principal stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Government troops supported by the U.S. military have been fighting to gain control of the area for the past 10 days.
Al-Maliki, also a Shiite, has faced widespread criticism over his decision to crackdown on the militias.
Violence in Iraq had declined last year and early this year following a cease-fire by al-Sadr, an influx of American troops and a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq.
But the recent government crackdown on the Mahdi Army has provoked fierce retaliation, underscoring the fragility of the security gains.
A U.S. military statement Thursday said 13 militants were killed in four separate clashes during the night. It also announced the death of another U.S. soldier Wednesday in a roadside bombing in central Baghdad, raising to 18 the number of American troop deaths in Iraq since Sunday.
In one incident, the military said U.S. helicopters fired two Hellfire missiles on gunmen attacking troops and setting up concrete barriers at a checkpoint. Four of the attackers were killed, a statement said.
However, police said the four killed were civilians, including two brothers who were under 10 years old.
Police also said two more men were killed Thursday morning when a U.S. airstrike targeted a two-story building in Sadr City with missiles after a number of oxygen cylinders were spotted on the sidewalk outside.
The U.S. military said it was looking into the report. Local police in Sadr City have strong links to the Mahdi Army and frequently claim that civilians are killed in airstrikes targeting militants.
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.
On Thursday morning, dozens of families squeezed through blast walls at the district's eastern entrance, carrying bags and pushing carts filled with clothes, groceries and other household items.
"We are fleeing because the shelling and airstrikes on us are increasing," said Nawal Abid, a housewife dressed in a black robe.
The Baghdad military command announced that a two-week old vehicle ban in Sadr City would be lifted on Saturday, while a separate vehicle ban in another Shiite area of Shula would be lifted on Friday.
TV executive resigns
Also Thursday, the head of Iraq's government-funded television network resigned in what appeared to be fallout from last month's faltering operation against Shiite militias in Basra.
Employees of Iraqiya television were informed that Habib al-Sadr had submitted his resignation and it was accepted, said Aziz Rahim, head of political programming.
Al-Sadr, who took over in mid-2005, was replaced by Hassan al-Moussawi, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party. He had been the head of a Shiite religious channel.
No reason was given for the change.
But another TV official told The Associated Press that the government was dissatisfied with the network's coverage of last month's offensive against Shiite gangs and militias in Basra.
Some government officials alleged the channel took a neutral stance during the Basra confrontation instead of promoting the government's point of view, the official said.
He spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear he might lose his job.
The official said al-Sadr was told by al-Maliki to either resign or face dismissal.
The Basra offensive triggered a violent reaction by the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, despite government insistence that the operation was not directed against mainstream followers of al-Sadr.
Habib al-Sadr is not closely related to Muqtada al-Sadr but is a brother-in-law of the cleric's main rival, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim.
Many Iraqis view the channel, which is supposed to be independent, as pro-Shiite and sympathetic to religious parties, especially the Sadrists.
During the past two weeks, Iraqi TV has been broadcasting hours-long of documentaries praising Muqtada al-Sadr's family for his role in the struggle against the regime of Saddam Hussein.