BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq condemned a US raid yesterday in Sadr City, Baghdad's Shi'ite slum district , in which American troops searching for Iranian-linked militants sparked a firefight that left 26 Iraqis dead.
The US military said all those killed in the fighting were gunmen, some of them firing from behind civilian cars. But residents said eight civilians were killed in their homes and accused American troops of firing wildly during the predawn assault.
Sadr City is the Iraqi capital's largest Shi'ite neighborhood -- home to about 2.5 million people -- making US raids there potentially embarrassing for Maliki's Shi'ite-led government. The district is also the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who was once Maliki's ally.
"The Iraqi government totally rejects US military operations . . . conducted without prior approval from the Iraqi military command," Maliki said in a statement concerning the Sadr City raid. "Anyone who breaches the military command orders will face investigation."
Maliki banned military operations in Sadr City without his approval last year after complaints from his Shi'ite political allies. The ban frustrated US commanders pushing for a crackdown on the Mahdi Army, blamed for sectarian killings.
Maliki later agreed that no area of the capital was off-limits, after President Bush ordered reinforcements to Iraq as part of the Baghdad security operation.
Also yesterday, the military announced that two American soldiers were charged with the premeditated murder of three Iraqis and with planting weapons on the bodies to cover up the slayings, which took place between April and June near Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Staff Sergeant Michael A. Hensley of Candler, N.C., was jailed Thursday in Kuwait, facing three counts each of premeditated murder, obstructing justice, and wrongfully placing the weapons. Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval, arrested at his home in Laredo, Texas, faces one count each of premeditated murder and planting a weapon, the military said.
In Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of the capital, police said a suicide bomber blew himself up near a crowd of police recruits, killing at least 23 people and wounding 17.
The US military also said an American soldier was killed and three others were wounded Friday when an armor-piercing bomb hit their combat patrol in southern Baghdad.
US troops have discovered a mass grave with as many as 40 bodies near Fallujah in western Iraq, the military said yesterday.
Thirty-five to 40 bodies -- with gunshot wounds and bound limbs -- were discovered at the site, the statement said. US military officials are investigating, it said without elaborating, and it was unclear who the victims were.
The US military said it conducted two predawn raids in Sadr City, killing 26 "terrorists" who attacked troops with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, and roadside bombs. But Iraqi officials said all the dead were civilians. An American military spokesman insisted that all those killed were combatants.
"Everyone who got shot was shooting at US troops at the time," said Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver. "It was an intense firefight."
US troops detained 17 men suspected of helping Iranian terror networks fund operations in Iraq, a military statement said.
There were no American casualties.
Witnesses said US forces rolled into their neighborhood before dawn and opened fire without warning.
"At about 4 a.m., a big American convoy with tanks came and began to open fire on houses -- bombing them," said Basheer Ahmed, who lives in Sadr City's Habibiya district. "What did we do? We didn't even retaliate -- there was no resistance."
According to Iraqi officials, the dead included three members of one family -- a father, mother, and son.
Several women and children, along with two police officers, were among the wounded, they said.
Houses, a bakery, and some other shops were damaged by US tank fire during the assault, Iraqi officials said.
In the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, Sheik Salah al-Obaidi, a spokesman for Sadr condemned yesterday's raids: "The bombing hurt only innocent civilians."
A police officer wounded in the raid, Montadhar Kareem, said he was on night duty in the Habibiya area when US troops moved in and "began bombing houses in the area."