- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — A top American general urged radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr today to rein in his fighters as a U.S. soldier was killed during a gun battle in a militia stronghold in Baghdad.

Two bombings also struck the northern city of Mosul within 30 minutes, killing four people and wounding 12 amid concerns that al-Qaeda in Iraq is regrouping.

The U.S. soldier died from a bullet wound in a clash in New Baghdad, a stronghold of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in an eastern section of the capital, according to Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a military spokesman.

A rocket also slammed into a closed school as teenagers were playing soccer outside, killing two youths and wounding three amid sporadic fighting in the sprawling Sadr City district, a predominantly Shi’ite area of Baghdad that is home to 2.5 million people.

Fighting that began a month ago in response to an Iraqi government crackdown on militia violence has put a severe strain on a cease-fire called in late August by al-Sadr. The anti-U.S. cleric threatened this weekend to unleash his militia in “open war” if the operations persist.

Despite heightened rhetoric by al-Sadr and his followers, U.S. commanders have been careful not to directly link the cleric to the fighting, instead blaming Iranian-backed Shi’ite fighters who have broken with his movement.

“We do not attribute what we’ve seen to JAM,” said the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, using the Iraqi acronym for the Mahdi Army.

But he suggested al-Sadr could stop the attacks.

“We certainly hope that Sadr will choose the road of peace and responsibility,” Austin, who commands day-to-day operations in Iraq, told reporters.

Fierce fighting also broke out overnight in Husseiniyah, another area dominated by Shi’ite militias on the northeastern outskirts of Baghdad as well as in Sadr City, the area that has been the focus of recent fighting.

The American military said 21 suspected gunmen were killed in the two neighborhoods late yesterday. Iraqi officials said 15 civilians were among the dead, including two women.

The killing of the U.S. soldier raised the American death toll in April to 34, the highest rate of death for troops in Iraq since September, when 65 Americans were killed, according to an Associated Press tally.

In all, at least 4,046 U.S. military personnel have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to the AP count.

Northern Iraq, where Sunni Arab extremists are the main threat, also faced more violence.

The first attack occurred about 11:15 a.m., when a suicide bomber pushing a cart detonated his explosives about 200 yards from the police headquarters, killing two people and wounding six, Brig. Gen. Khalid Abdul-Sattar said.

A parked car bomb exploded about a half hour later as a police patrol passed the vehicle in another part of the city, killing two passers-by and wounding six other people.

The bombings were the latest in a series of attacks that have chipped away at recent security gains.

Austin said more high-profile bombings are likely as al-Qaeda in Iraq tries to regroup after suffering a devastating blow last year when thousands of Sunni tribesmen turned against the terrorist group that is blamed for most car bombings and suicide attacks in Iraq.

Last weekend, the terror network announced a one-month offensive against U.S. troops and U.S.-allied Sunnis.

Austin vowed “to work hard to hold our gains that we’ve made over the past several months.”

The U.S. military also raised the death toll from yesterday’s suicide bombing in Diyala province to 18 — 11 civilians and seven policemen. It said two policemen were wounded.

Iraqi police who received reports at the provincial headquarters gave a lower toll, saying eight policemen were killed and 10 people were wounded when the woman blew herself up at the entrance to a police station in Jalula, 80 miles northeast of Baghdad.

It was the second suicide attack by a woman in as many days in Diyala, which has become a flashpoint in the battle against al-Qaeda.

Associated Press writer Bushra Juhi in Baghdad and the AP News Research Center in New York contributed to this report.

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