- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2007

BAGHDAD — U.S. troops searching for Iranian-linked militants yesterday sparked a firefight in Baghdad’s Shi’ite Sadr City slum that left 26 Iraqis dead and drew condemnation from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The U.S. military said all those killed in the fighting were gunmen, some of them firing from behind civilian cars. But residents said eight civilians were killed in their homes and angrily accused American troops of firing wildly during the pre-dawn assault.

Sadr City is the Iraqi capital’s largest Shi’ite neighborhood — home to about 2.5 million people — making U.S. raids there potentially embarrassing for Mr. al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government. The district is also the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who was once Mr. al-Maliki’s ally.

“The Iraqi government totally rejects U.S. military operations … conducted without prior approval from the Iraqi military command,” Mr. al-Maliki said in a statement. “Anyone who breaches the military command orders will face investigation.”

Mr. al-Maliki last year banned military operations in Sadr City without his approval after complaints from his Shi’ite political allies. The ban frustrated U.S. commanders pushing for a crackdown on the Mahdi Army, blamed for sectarian killings.

Mr. al-Maliki later agreed that no area of the capital was off-limits, after President Bush ordered reinforcements to Iraq as part of the Baghdad security operation.

The U.S. military said it conducted two pre-dawn raids in Sadr City yesterday, killing 26 “terrorists” who attacked U.S. troops with small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.

Iraqi officials said all of those killed were civilians.

An American military spokesman, however, insisted they were combatants.

“Everyone who got shot was shooting at U.S. troops at the time,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver. “It was an intense firefight.”

U.S. troops detained 17 men suspected of helping Iranian terror networks fund operations in Iraq, the military said. There were no U.S. casualties.

Witnesses said U.S. forces rolled into their neighborhood before dawn and opened fire without warning.

According to Iraqi officials, the dead included three members of one family — a father, mother and son. Several women and children, along with two policemen, were among the wounded, they said.

Hours later, a funeral procession snaked through the streets of Sadr City’s Orfali district. Three coffins were hoisted atop cars.

Also yesterday, the military announced that two American soldiers were charged with the premeditated murder of three Iraqis and with planting weapons on the bodies to cover up the slayings, which took place between April and June near Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad.

Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley from Candler, N.C., was jailed Thursday in Kuwait, facing three counts each of premeditated murder, obstructing justice and wrongfully placing the weapons. Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval, arrested at his home in Laredo, Texas, faces one count each of premeditated murder and planting a weapon, the military said.

In Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of the capital, police said a suicide bomber blew himself up near a crowd of police recruits, killing at least 23 persons and wounding 17. The U.S. military also said a U.S. soldier was killed and three others wounded Friday when a sophisticated, armor-piercing bomb hit their combat patrol in southern Baghdad.

Yesterday, the U.S. military said U.S. troops discovered a mass grave with as many as 40 bodies near Fallujah in western Iraq.

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