By Ned Parker and Raheem Salman, Los Angeles Times
Fierce fighting erupts between Shiite militiamen and US-led forces in Baghdad's Sadr City. Hours earlier, the government had called on cleric Sadr to dissolve his militia.
Baghdad - Rocket attacks killed three American soldiers in Baghdad on Sunday, while fighting between Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and U.S.-led forces paralyzed the capital's Sadr City neighborhood and left up to 22 Iraqis dead.
Just hours before the violence erupted, the Iraqi government issued a call for the radical cleric to dissolve his militia. Two U.S. military personnel were killed when rocket fire hit the Green Zone, home to the Iraqi government and the American Embassy. An attack on the Rustamiya base in east Baghdad claimed the life of a third soldier, the military said. The attacks wounded 31 people.
A fourth U.S. soldier died in a roadside bombing in the northeastern province of Diyala, while a fifth was killed in a noncombat incident, the military said.
At least 4,018 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
Shiite Muslim militants have pounded the Green Zone with mortar rounds and rockets since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki launched a crackdown on Shiite gunmen in the southern port of Basra late last month.
The violence in Sadr City erupted in the early morning and lasted until late afternoon. Witnesses said U.S. and Iraqi forces traded fire with Sadr's Mahdi Army on the perimeters of the Shiite slum, home to 2.5 million people and a bastion of support for the cleric.
Medical sources from Sadr City hospitals, which are under the militia's de facto control, put the toll at 22 civilian deaths and 96 wounded. The U.S. military said it fired two missiles at 8 a.m. that killed nine militants who had been launching rocket-propelled grenades at Iraqi soldiers. The differences in the accounts could not be immediately resolved.
The fighting was the most serious between the sides since Sadr called on his followers to silence their weapons last Sunday after nearly a week of combat in Basra, other parts of southern Iraq and in Baghdad.
Shops in Sadr City were closed and streets desolate. U.S. military vehicles blocked the entrances to the sprawling neighborhood, where American and Iraqi forces have prevented vehicles from coming and going for days. Civilians who could fled the neighborhood, and described themselves as having lived under siege since the Mahdi Army rebelled after Maliki launched his Basra offensive March 25.
"At least three civilians were killed in my area," said Abu Abed, who left Sadr City on Sunday. "Some are saying that the area is targeted by the Americans; others said the mortar rounds. Anyway, it is not possible for the families to stay there. Most of the families left."
Helicopters buzzed over rooftops, and smoke rose over Sadr City when 107-millimeter missiles fired at a U.S.-Iraqi military compound fell short and hit a civilian area, according to the military. Six civilians were wounded, including a child, medical sources said.
U.S. tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles rolled down streets to provide support for Iraqi soldiers who came under rocket and small-arms fire at the edge of Sadr City, the U.S. military said. The U.S. Army accused militiamen of firing rockets and mortars at Iraqi and U.S. troops from inside and outside Sadr City.
Maliki, senior Iraqi officials and the leaders of the main Iraqi political blocs issued a statement late Saturday through the government's Political Council for National Security, calling on all parties to disarm their militias ahead of provincial elections scheduled for October. Sadr's movement, which officials said was the main target of the declaration, rejected the demand.
"Everyone understands this means mainly the Mahdi Army," said parliament member Sami Askari, who is close to Maliki. "You can't put one foot in the political process and with the other act in an army against the national government. No one can accept this."
Askari said the government was planning to introduce the recommendation to parliament either in a new election law, required for October's vote, or a separate bill. Sadr's followers believe their rivals are trying to outmaneuver them ahead of the election.
Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.