- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — The U.S. military death toll hit a seven-month high of 49 today - with more than half the losses in Baghdad as American forces wage growing street battles against Shi’iite fighters.

Iraqi civilian deaths also remained high following the Iraqi government crackdown on Shiite militia factions accused by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of using residents as human shields during close combat in the teeming Sadr City slum.

The clashes in Sadr City a base for the powerful Mahdi Army militia show little sign of easing as Iraqi and U.S. troops try to exert control over an area containing nearly half of the Baghdad’s population.

In the deadliest skirmish today, suspected Shi’ite extremists first attacked with mortars and machine guns, then drove up a U.S. checkpoint and opened fire. The U.S. military said seven militants were killed. At least 10 other militiamen died in other clashes, the military said.

At least 4,059 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

“We have said all along that this will be a tough fight and there will be periods where we see these extremists, these criminal groups and al-Qaeda terrorists seek to reassert themselves,” U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner told reporters in Baghdad.

“So, the sacrifice of our troopers, the sacrifice of Iraqi forces and Iraqi citizens reflects this challenge,” Bergner said in response to a question about what’s behind the increase in American troop deaths.

The latest fighting erupted at the end of March after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a crackdown against Shi’ite militias in the southern port city of Basra. But it quickly spread to Baghdad’s Sadr City, a sprawling slum with about 2.5 million people that is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The militiamen have used the district as a base to fire barrages of missiles and mortar rounds at the U.S.-protected Green Zone which houses much of the Iraqi government and Western diplomatic missions, including the U.S. and British embassies.

They also have fought running street battles in which hundreds have died. The U.S. military says those killed have been mainly gunmen. But police and medical authorities in Sadr City say innocent civilians have frequently gotten caught up in the fighting.

Such street battles — in tight confines and amid frightened civilians — are increasingly becoming a hallmark of the drive into Sadr City and recall the type of head-on clashes last seen in large numbers during last year’s U.S. troop buildup in Baghdad and surrounding areas.

The Sadr City violence continued overnight with the destruction of a school in the district. AP Television News footage showed that parts of the two-floor Baghdad Girls’ School had pancaked as the result of an explosion. Desks were hanging down from the slanting classrooms where the outer walls were blown out by the blast.

Local officials said the school was the target of an airstrike last evening.

An official at the local hospital, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said two people were killed and 16 wounded overnight in Sadr City. He said this brought the death toll in the district since yesterday to 31, with 107 wounded.

The U.S. military had no comment about the school but said an Abrams tank fired at gunmen shooting at U.S. troops in Sadr City, killing all three. In another part of Sadr City, an unmanned drone fired a missile at a group of men planting a roadside bomb and killed one, the military said.

Today, al-Maliki accused the Mahdi Army of using civilians as human shields, and vowed to continue the crackdown against militias.

“We can’t build a state along with militias,” he told reporters at a news conference. “We want to build a single national army.”

Al-Maliki also said that militants had killed the nephew of an Interior Ministry spokesman and hanged the body from an electric pole in Baghdad. The attack yesterday was in apparent retaliation for the spokesman’s role in a government crackdown against Shi’ite militias.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf was in charge of the crackdown on the Mahdi Army that began in Basra in late March and has survived past assassination attempts. His nephew was killed in Sadr City district, al-Maliki said.

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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