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Iraqi civilians flee fierce clashes in militia stronghold

Militants' rockets draw retaliation from US forces

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Selcan Hacaoglu
Associated Press / May 7, 2008

BAGHDAD - A rocket slammed into Baghdad's city hall and another hit a downtown park yesterday as more frightened civilians fled a Shi'ite militia stronghold where US-led forces are locked in fierce street battles.

The American push in the Sadr City district - launched after an Iraqi government crackdown on armed Shi'ite groups began in late March - is trying to weaken the militia grip in a key corner of Baghdad and disrupt rocket and mortar strikes on the US-protected Green Zone.

But fresh salvos of rockets from militants were fired over the city, wounding at least 16 people and drawing US retaliation that escalated civilian panic and flight to safer areas.

One rocket, apparently aimed at the Green Zone, blasted the nearby city hall. Three 122mm rockets hit parts of central Baghdad, destroying some playground equipment in a park. An Iraqi police station was damaged by a rocket that failed to detonate, the US military said.

US forces used air strikes and tank fire against suspected militia positions following a rocket attack late Monday in Sadr City, the military said. At least six people were killed.

An attack aircraft later fired two Hellfire missiles and killed three militants who were planting a roadside bomb in the Shi'ite neighborhood of New Baghdad yesterday, the military added.

At least four civilians were killed in the clashes, hospital officials said.

The latest battles occurred as the Pentagon announced plans to cut US troop strength by about 3,500 toward its goal of withdrawing the bulk of its "surge" forces sent last year into Baghdad and surrounding areas.

More families, meanwhile, sought refuge in neighborhoods away from the fighting, which showed no sign of easing.

A senior member of the municipal council in Sadr City estimated 8,000 families had fled the slum since the battles began six weeks ago. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of security reasons. The figure could not be independently verified.

Mulkiya Methour, a woman wearing a black head-to-toe chador, said many families had left Sadr City.

"They fled bombardment. Their houses were destroyed and sewage floated into their homes," Methour told AP Television News outside Sadr City, the stronghold for the Mahdi Army militia of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

For Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, the crackdown is a test of his determination to exert control. He has vowed to disarm all militants even as he faces accusations from Sadr's supporters of committing crimes against his own people.

The crackdown also has sharpened tensions between the United States and Iran.

Washington accuses Iran of helping train and arm some Shi'ite factions in Iraq. Tehran denies the charges.

Hassan al-Rubaie, a Sadrist lawmaker, suspended his seat in parliament to protest the fighting in Sadr City.

In the northern city of Mosul, one US soldier was killed in an attack by Sunni insurgents on an American patrol, the military said.

Washington plans to trim forces in Iraq to about 140,000 soldiers by the summer, from a peak of about 170,000 in October, at the height of the troop buildup in Baghdad and surrounding areas.

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