Friday, July 13, 2007

BAGHDAD — U.S. troops raided a Shi’ite area of Baghdad yesterday, capturing two militants considered linked to Iran and sparking a battle that Iraqi officials said killed 19 persons. Two employees of the Reuters news agency were among the dead.

Angry residents of the Amin district in eastern Baghdad — many of them Shi’ites who fled to Baghdad from Baqouba where U.S. troops are waging an offensive against insurgents — accused U.S. helicopters of striking buildings and killing civilians during the fight with gunmen. The U.S. military did not comment on the fighting.

Among the dead were at least one woman and two children. Some of the men slain appeared to have been armed and firing on the Americans, Iraqi police and hospital officials said.

The violence began with a pre-dawn raid by U.S. forces, who captured two militants involved in kidnappings and planting roadside bombs against American and Iraqi troops, the military said. Militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the troops, hitting a nearby building, according to the military.

The militants belonged to Iranian-backed “special groups” linked to the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the military said. The United States has accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of organizing and arming a network of the special groups to carry out attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces as well as kidnappings.

After the initial raid, U.S. troops surrounded the neighborhood for several hours, announcing with loudspeakers that they were seeking militants and that residents should stay inside, said an Iraqi police official who was at the scene.

As the Americans withdrew at about 11 a.m., they came under fire, the official said. That prompted troops to move back into the district, assaulting several buildings. A U.S. attack helicopter struck targets on the ground, he said.

Officials from the three hospitals where victims were taken put the toll at 19 dead and 20 wounded. Among the dead were an Iraqi photographer for Reuters, Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his driver, Saeed Chmagh, 40, the London-based news agency said. “The cause of their deaths was unclear, although witnesses spoke of an explosion in the area,” Reuters reported. “Iraqi police said either a U.S. air strike or a mortar attack had occurred.”

The U.S. military reported on the initial raid but not on the later fighting.

In southern Iraq, clashes erupted between Shi’ite militants and the Iraqi army, killing a soldier and a civilian in the city of Diwaniyah, police said. The U.S. military said American-Iraqi sweeps in the city during the previous two days killed eight insurgent suspects.

A suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt near a wedding party in Tal Afar, a city 260 miles northwest of Baghdad that has experienced frequent attacks by Sunni insurgents. A police officer in Tal Afar said five persons were killed and five wounded, though the bride and groom escaped injury.

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