US forces kill at least 8 Iraq militants
Shi'ites say some civilians were killed in assault
BAGHDAD -- US helicopters blasted rooftops in a Shi'ite neighborhood before dawn yesterday as American troops battled gunmen on the ground, killing at least eight by the military's count.
Shi'ites said some civilians died, and radicals castigated Iraq's government as being too weak to rein in the Americans.
The criticism put new pressure on the Shi'ite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who had been under fire from US critics over his government's failure to achieve national unity.
Also, an explosion killed one American soldier and wounded four in Salahuddin Province, a mostly Sunni Arab area north of the capital.
The blast came hours after suspected Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters attacked police stations in Samarra, a city in the province about 60 miles north of Baghdad. A police officer, a woman, and an 11-year-old girl were reported killed.
The US military said the battle in Baghdad erupted when a US Army patrol came under fire shortly after midnight from gunmen on rooftops in Shula, a rundown Shi'ite neighborhood that is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Troops called in attack helicopters, which raked the rooftops with automatic weapons fire, a US spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Scott Bleichwehl, said.
During the battle, US helicopters from the First Air Cavalry Brigade also fired on about a dozen armed militiamen "moving toward coalition forces" in Shula, the military said in a statement.
The military first reported eight dead, then raised the figure to 18, but later returned to the lower figure, explaining that the changes were due to confusion on the battlefield.
Bleichwehl said all the dead had been "identified as hostile" and there was "no collateral damage," the US term for civilian casualties.
But Iraqi police and hospital officials said the dead included a woman and a young boy. Sixteen other people were wounded, including four women and three boys in their early teens who had been sleeping on the roofs to escape the summer heat, an official at Noor Hospital in Shula said.
The Iraqi officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release such information.
In Najaf, the leader of the pro-Sadr bloc in Parliament, Nasser al-Rubaie, said 21 civilians were killed in Shula. He blamed Maliki's government, saying it is "weak and can do nothing in the face of the occupation."
Although Rubaie's figures appeared exaggerated, US attacks in Shi'ite neighborhoods are troublesome for Maliki because they fuel hostility toward his American backers within the Shi'ite community -- the prime minister's power base.
The verbal barrage by Shi'ites comes as Maliki is drawing increased criticism in the United States over his government's inability to forge unity among Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds.
A report released Thursday by US intelligence agencies predicted more turmoil over the next six to 12 months because Iraqi political leaders "remain unable to govern effectively."
The criticism comes weeks before two key American figures in Iraq -- US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the military commander, General David Petraeus -- report to Congress on the state of the country following the buildup of US forces this year.
The addition of troops was aimed at reducing violence so Iraq's rival sectarian and ethnic communities could reach power-sharing deals essential for lasting peace.
But the political crisis reached a boil this month when the main Sunni political bloc pulled out of the government, accusing Maliki of failing to respond to their demands, including the release of security detainees held without charge.
Nearly 85 percent of the detainees in custody are Sunni Arabs, the minority faction in Iraq that ruled the country under the government of Saddam Hussein, with the other detainees being Shi'ite Muslims, The Times said, citing American military officers in Iraq.