The U.S. military said its troops killed 49 fighters in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, one of the highest death tolls for a military operation since President Bush declared an end to active combat in 2003.
,,,Iraqi officials and residents of the vast Shiite enclave, loyal to powerful anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said 13 people were killed and all of the victims were innocent civilians, including children. They warned that the attack could lead Sadr to rescind a suspension of his militia’s operations.
According to the military, U.S. troops entered the neighborhood at 4 a.m. to target a militia chief responsible for an extensive Iranian-backed kidnapping ring. His name was not released.
Gunmen then began firing automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. troops, the military said. It said ground forces returned fire, killing 33 fighters, then called in helicopter gunships, which killed six more.
As U.S. soldiers left the neighborhood at 7 a.m., they struck a roadside bomb but continued returning fire, killing 10 more, the military said. The target of the raid was not captured, and no U.S. troops were injured, military officials said.
But Sadr City residents and Iraqi officials said the only victims were civilians — whom they described as 13 dead and 52 injured.
“I have seen the dead children,” said Abu Zahara, an official in the local Sadr office. “We are a peaceful people. We are just sitting in our homes. We don’t want anything to do with the Americans. Just leave us alone.”
He said among the dead were a woman and four children, including a 4-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. Their 1-year-old brother was seriously wounded, he said.
“Why are the American soldiers fighting women and children?” said Abu Hawra, a local religious leader. “The American occupation forces started bombing the city for no reason.”
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that the government would investigate the raid and that coordination between U.S. and Iraqi forces was necessary to prevent such “woeful incidents.”
Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, called the raid a “barbaric action” and a “crime” that should lead to criminal charges. He said no one in Sadr City attacked the Americans because Sadr in August had ordered his powerful militia, the Mahdi Army, to stop all fighting for six months.
Obeidi said Sadr’s order remained in effect. But several of his followers in Sadr City said they expected the attack to increase pressure on him to lift the order.
Mohammed Chaloub, 38, who works in the Interior Ministry, said he watched the raid from his roof and saw the damage it left: a bombed-out primary school, several destroyed shops and 18 burned cars. U.S. gunfire prevented firefighting vehicles from reaching the area, he said.
He said Sadr City residents were furious at the U.S. troops. “If you woke up in the morning and saw your entire family killed and your house burned out, what would your reaction be?” he said. “Nobody would accept that.”