/ 3 May 2008

US rocket strike near Baghdad hospital wounds 20

The United States military fired rockets at a target near a major hospital in eastern Baghdad on Saturday, wounding 20 people and damaging a number of ambulances, a senior Iraqi hospital official said.

No patients were wounded at the hospital in the Sadr City stronghold of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, but 20 people at the scene of the blasts were wounded, said the official.

”Three missiles were fired at a place very close to the hospital. Windows of the hospital were shattered,” the official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.

In a statement, the US military said: ”We did hit the target, which was a criminal command and control centre, which was near a hospital. We are still assessing battle damages.”

It said precision-guided munitions were used to destroy the militant facility in Sadr City, where US and Iraqi forces have been battling gunmen loyal to al-Sadr for several weeks.

Such weapons could either be rockets fired from launchers on the ground or helicopters.

”Coalition forces only target legitimate military objectives and follow strict rules of engagement. Every necessary measure is put in place to mitigate collateral damage and protect the lives of innocent civilians,” the military said.

Reuters Television pictures showed a destroyed building not far from the hospital, one of two main medical facilities in the crowded Shi’ite slum of Sadr City, home to two million people.

Several ambulances were badly damaged, along with a number of civilian cars.

The latest attack came after a night of more violence in Sadr City. The US military said American and Iraqi forces killed 14 gunmen in battles overnight.

Hospital officials said 14 people had been killed and 25 wounded following the clashes. It was not immediately clear if the dead and wounded were gunmen or civilians.

The US military has been carrying out air strikes on gunmen nearly every day in the militia bastion since fighting erupted more than a month ago.

It says militants have fired more than 700 rockets and mortars at various targets during that period, mostly at the Green Zone government and diplomatic compound. Many have been fired from within Sadr City.

Delegation to return from Iran

The US military blames rogue elements of al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia for the rocket fire. It accuses Iran of arming, funding and training those militants, a charge Tehran denies.

On Saturday, an Iraqi delegation was expected to return from Tehran after showing officials there evidence of Iranian support for Shi’ite militias.

The Iraqi government has until now been restrained in its criticism of its Shi’ite neighbour, but has been upset by the recent discovery of large amounts of Iranian-made weapons.

The US said this week ”very, very significant” amounts of Iranian weaponry had been found in the southern city of Basra and also Baghdad during an offensive against militiamen in those cities that began in late March.

Some of those arms were made in 2008, the military says.

Haidar al-Ibadi, a member of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa party, told Reuters on Friday the delegation in Iran presented details of training camps and Shi’ite militia cells which were linked to Iran.

He said the delegation, which comprises senior parliamentarians and officials close to Maliki, was told by Iranian officials that Tehran was not interfering in Iraq and that it was being unfairly blamed for Iraq’s problems. – Reuters