- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Civilian casualties mounted today as clashes between Shi’ite gunmen and U.S. and Iraqi troops spread to Baghdad’s outskirts. Police said two women were among seven people killed in fighting overnight.

The U.S. military said today that 15 suspected militants were killed in separate attacks a day earlier in mainly Shi’ite areas.

Fierce fighting broke out during a military operation late yesterday in Husseiniyah, a mainly Shi’ite area that sits to the north of Baghdad’s embattled Sadr City district.

U.S. and Iraqi troops were backed by helicopters as they fought until this morning with suspected Shi’ite militiamen who dominate the area, police said. Women and children were among 20 people wounded, they said.

Police and hospital officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information, also said eight civilians were killed and 44 others wounded in fighting in Sadr City, a sprawling district in northeastern Baghdad.

A seriously wounded man died as an ambulance speeding him to the hospital was caught in the crossfire, police said.

U.S. soldiers responded after they were attacked by rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire, killing 12 “criminals” in three separate incidents yesterday in eastern Baghdad, the military said.

A man planting a roadside bomb in northeastern Baghdad also was shot to death by American soldiers in northeastern Baghdad, while two others spotted with a mortar tube were killed in an airstrike, according to the military statement.

The military did not provide specific locations, but Sadr City and other Shi’ite areas dominate eastern Baghdad.

Clashes that have occurred daily since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, launched a crackdown against militias on March 25 have taken a heavy toll on civilians, although the U.S. military insists it takes all possible precautions to avoid hurting innocent Iraqis.

At least 315 people have been killed in Sadr City alone in the past month, according to an Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.

The official said no breakdown was available for the number of militiamen, civilians and Iraqi security forces. But an Associated Press count shows at least 200 of those killed have been civilians.

The fighting, which began late last month, has put a severe strain on a nearly eight-month-old cease-fire called by anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has threatened to unleash his Mahdi Army militia in an “open war” if the government crackdown persists.

A series of bombings that bear the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents also has chipped away at recent security gains.

The U.S. military raised the death toll in yesterday’s female suicide bombing in Diyala province to 18 — 10 Iraqi civilians, a Kurd and seven Iraqi policemen. It also said two Iraqi policemen were wounded.

Iraqi police who received reports at the provincial headquarters gave a lower toll, saying that eight policemen were killed and 10 other people 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, a flashpoint in the battle against al-Qaeda.

A young woman blew herself up Monday at the headquarters of a group of U.S.-allied Sunni fighters, killing three people and wounding three others, the U.S. military said.

Al-Qaeda has been regrouping after suffering a devastating blow last year when thousands of Sunni tribesmen turned against them. Last weekend, al-Qaeda announced a one-month offensive against U.S. troops and Sunnis who have joined forces with Americans.

Two U.S. Marines and an Iraqi civilian also were killed when a bomb-rigged water tanker truck exploded at a checkpoint near the western city of Ramadi yesterday in another apparent strike by al-Qaeda in Iraq in one of its former strongholds.

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