Fierce fighting raged on Tuesday as United States and Iraqi forces battled heavily armed Shi’ite militiamen in their Baghdad bastion of Sadr City for a third straight day, an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent and witnesses said.
Witnesses said fierce clashes erupted soon after midnight as American tanks attempted to push into Sadr City.
They were met by fighters of the Mehdi Army militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr armed with rockets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, witnesses said.
“We did not sleep all night because of the heavy fire,” said Mustafa Mohammed, a resident of the sprawling eastern Baghdad district of about two million people.
“My baby was screaming. My grandmother is sick and I wasn’t able to take her to hospital because I’m under siege. We just can’t move as our house is on the frontline.”
Mohammed said many families have left their homes and are staying with relatives deeper inside the Sadr City district.
An AFP correspondent said fighting broke out at about midnight as Mehdi Army fighters deployed along minor roads after planting bombs on the main routes to halt the advance of the American and Iraqi forces.
US helicopters could be seen hovering above the vast neighbourhood, and loud explosions were heard in mid-morning.
At least 15 people were wounded in the fighting in the impoverished Mehdi Army stronghold, according to an initial toll from medical officials.
The latest clashes have brought parts of the impoverished district to a standstill, with the main market burnt out, water in short supply, shops shut and streets deserted.
Residents were seen bringing in food and water supplies from outside the district even as others were leaving, carrying what possessions they could.
Adnan Sadun, his wife and three children were among those heading out, even as fighting was heard some blocks away.
“I am going to Baghdad Jadida [in the east of the capital] to shift my family. My house was damaged in the exchange of fire. We can’t stay there any more. The shops are shut, there is no water, no electricity,” said the 30-year-old.
More than 30 people have been killed in Sadr City since the fighting broke out in earnest on Sunday.
Iraqi and US forces have been engaged in fierce clashes with the Mehdi Army since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a crackdown on Shi’ite militiamen last month.
On Monday, Maliki warned the Sadr group that it would be banned from participating in elections unless the militia is disbanded.
Tension in Baghdad has been raised even higher since the Sadr group called for a massive anti-US protest on Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. — AFP