BAGHDAD - In one of the most intense days of fighting in the nation's capital involving US troops in recent months, American helicopters fired at least four Hellfire missiles and an Air Force jet dropped a bomb on a suspected militia target as Iraqis struggled to bury their dead amid fierce street battles.
Rockets and missiles launched from militia strongholds pounded US bases around the city, where troops also came under fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. Targets included the Green Zone, where the US Embassy and most Iraqi government buildings are located.
Three more Americans were killed, two from a rocket-propelled grenade and the third by small-arms fire, according to the Associated Press. The US military did not say where the deaths occurred. The latest casualties increase US combat deaths in Iraq to nine since Sunday and 18 since March 25, when fighting spread to the capital after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's decision to launch an offensive against Shi'ite militiamen in the southern city of Basra.
The fighting and rising death toll are expected to raise more questions about the role of the United States in Iraq, and how to define progress or success, as General David H. Petraeus appears before Congress today. The long-awaited testimony will be before committees that include the three remaining US presidential candidates: Republican John McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, all of whom will be afforded the chance to question the general.
The fighting in Baghdad has been the most intense since January 2007, when American helicopters and warplanes blasted central Baghdad's Haifa Street in an offensive against Sunni Arab insurgents. The following month, President Bush announced the deployment of 28,500 extra American forces to quell Iraq's violence and give Iraqi leaders time to mend the political rivalries seen as the root of the fighting.
Radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who opposes Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated government and the ongoing US presence in Iraq, says the latest offensive unfairly targeted his Mahdi Army militia. He has rejected Maliki's demands to disarm it.
The latest clashes have overshadowed six months of security gains and probably have dashed any hopes of withdrawing more US forces after the extra 28,500 troops go home by July. They have also shown that Iraq's deadly rivalries extend far beyond Sunnis vs. Shi'ites.
As well, deadlines set for political benchmarks in Iraq, such as rewriting the constitution or legislation to manage the oil industry, have been missed.
In Basra yesterday, an explosion flattened a building. Authorities said at least three militants were killed. The source of the blast was unclear.
In Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, where Sadr's militia holds sway, fighting to dislodge gunmen from the dusty alleyways and dilapidated buildings had killed at least 41 Iraqis and wounded 185 since Sunday, hospital officials said. They included 16 killed yesterday.
Thousands of Sadr City residents were fleeing to the relative safety of neighboring areas. A driving ban for Sadr City remained in place, leaving residents no choice but to pile bundles onto their heads or under their arms and trek past US and Iraqi armored vehicles stationed on the edge of the sprawling neighborhood in eastern Baghdad.
Some carried coffins and loaded them into waiting trucks, which were driven to the holy city of Najaf for burial services.
Saad Mohammed was among those being buried yesterday. A friend, Wisam Kadhim, said Mohammed was mortally wounded in a US air strike Sunday and had left behind a wife and two children. "His family couldn't make a funeral for him, so we, his friends, made a small funeral," said Kadhim. Few people showed up, he said, because they feared being caught in cross-fire.
A US military spokesman in Baghdad, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover, rejected Iraqi allegations that US air strikes and gunfire have killed mainly civilians.
"There might be some civilians that are getting caught, but for the most part, we're killing the bad guys. We're very precise," he said, adding that many strikes had been called off when it was not possible to get a "clean hit" that would avoid hitting noncombatants.