/ 31 March 2008

US: Air strikes, assaults in Baghdad kill 41 ‘criminals’

United States air strikes and military assaults have killed 41 ”criminals” in Baghdad, including 25 who died when an alleged mortar team was bombed, the US military announced on Monday.

The killings occurred on Sunday in eastern and north-eastern Baghdad where US and Iraqi forces have been battling the Mehdi Army militia of radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr since Tuesday.

The deaths push the toll from six days of fighting between security forces and Shi’ite militiamen in Baghdad, the southern city of Basra and several other Shi’ite areas to more than 320, at least 140 of these in Baghdad.

On Sunday, al-Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets while the government agreed not to pursue those involved in the fighting provided they stowed their weapons.

A US military statement said American soldiers were hunting for the launch site of a rocket or mortar attack in eastern Baghdad on Sunday when their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, injuring one soldier.

While soldiers were securing the area they found a second bomb nearby. They were then attacked with mortars or rockets, rocket propelled grenades and small-arms fire from a nearby house.

”A mortar team was spotted on the roof of the house where the attack was coming from,” the statement said, adding that air support was called in and the house bombed, killing ”25 criminals”.

In north-east Baghdad, another eight ”criminals” were killed when they attacked US soldiers, a separate statement said.

Among those who died were two who were killed when US attack helicopters fired two Hellfire missiles at fighters who launched an attack on soldiers manning a checkpoint in Kadhimiyah neighbourhood, a Mehdi Army stronghold.

Another eight ”criminals” were killed in a series of other attacks on US forces Sunday, a third statement said.

Al-Sadr in a statement on Sunday distanced himself from those ”who carry weapons and target the government, the offices of the government and its parties”.

The fighting began on March 25 when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered his troops to attack Mehdi Army strongholds in Basra, the southern oil hub, which he said were infested by ”lawless gunmen”.

The fighting quickly spread across other Shi’ite areas and flared in particular in Sadr City, the Mehdi Army’s main stronghold in the Iraqi capital.

Maliki, himself a Shi’ite who has been directing security operations from inside Basra, said he hoped al-Sadr’s order would ”contribute to the stability of the situation”.

”It is a step in the right direction,” he said in a statement. – AFP