United States forces killed 49 ”criminals” in fierce fighting with militants in Baghdad’s Shi’ite stronghold of Sadr City on Sunday during a raid targeting an Iranian-linked insurgent, the military said.
Medics at four hospitals confirmed 17 dead, including a boy and a girl, but US military spokesperson Major Winfield Danielson said there were no civilian casualties and no reports of American losses.
Pictures taken by an Agence France-Presse photographer showed grieving relatives carrying off the bodies of dead for burial and dozens of wounded being treated by emergency hospital staff.
One resident stood crying over the coffin of a young boy, while other residents pointed to blood-stained mattresses they said were the result of an air strike from an American helicopter.
The US military said troops were drawn into fighting after they launched a raid to seize their high-value target in Sadr City, a poor part of the capital dominated by militia loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
”The operation’s objective was an individual reported to be a long-time Special Groups member specialising in kidnapping operations,” a statement from the military said.
”Special Groups” is a US military term for what it says are secret Shi’ite cells which wage acts of ”terrorism” in Iraq with the financial and military backing of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards units.
”Intelligence indicates he is a well-known cell leader and has previously sought funding from Iran to carry out high profile kidnappings,” the statement said.
Danielson said the targeted individual had not been killed or captured during the clashes, which the military said erupted when troops were attacked by gunfire and rocket propelled grenades.
”Responding in self-defence, coalition forces engaged, killing an estimated 33 criminals,” the statement said, adding that air support was then called in and killed another six. Ten more were killed as US forces withdrew, it said.
”I can say that we don’t have any evidence of any civilians killed or wounded. Coalition forces only engage hostile threats and make every effort to protect innocent civilians,” said Danielson.
The US military has regularly targeted al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia, which dominates in Sadr City and are accused by the Americans of widescale criminal activity and sectarian killings of Sunnis.
Sadr, whose movement is the most powerful popular force in Iraq, declared a six-month freeze on the activities of his militia in August, including a halt to attacks on US-led troops.
But his political bloc pulled out of the Shi’ite alliance that leads Iraq’s coalition government in September following a boycott by his six ministers in April, further upsetting Iraq’s already fractured political landscape.
”What happened today in Sadr City is part of a series of conspiracies led by the US against the Sadrists. Sadrists who are always demanding the exit of the occupier,” said al-Sadr MP Saleh al-Igaili.
”The Sadrists condemn the barbaric action and hold the Iraqi government and the occupier responsible for the attack.
”The occupier’s declaration that it killed 49 criminals is a lie. The occupier’s forces actually killed only 10 and wounded 62, but most of them were children and women,” he said.
US forces have welcomed the al-Sadr freeze but continue to target fighters who it says have broken away from the main force of the Mehdi Army and formed special groups allegedly aided by Iran.
”We continue to support the government of Iraq in welcoming the commitment by Moqtada al-Sadr to stop attacks and we will continue to show restraint in dealing with those who honour his pledge,” the military statement said.
”We will not show the same restraint against those criminals who dishonour this pledge by attacking security forces and Iraqi citizens,” said Danielson. – AFP