BAGHDAD - Dozens of fighters ambushed a US patrol in Baghdad's main Shi'ite militia stronghold yesterday, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun bursts as the American push into Sadr City increasingly faces pockets of close urban combat.
US forces struck back with 200-pound guided rockets that devastated at least three buildings in the densely packed district that serves as the Baghdad base for the powerful Mahdi Army militia.
The US military said 28 militiamen were killed as the US patrol pulled back. Local hospital officials said dozens of civilians were killed or wounded.
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 US troop buildup in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
US troops have often fought intense gunbattles as they cleared neighborhoods in Baghdad and former Sunni insurgent havens such as Anbar and Diyala provinces. But roadside bombings and rocket or mortar volleys against bases have been the more frequent mode of attack in recent years.
Clashes have intensified in Sadr City since the Mahdi Army leader - anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr - reiterated his threat of an all-out war against US-led forces last week. US troops, meanwhile, find themselves increasingly drawn into the fight opened by the Iraqi government to cripple the power of Shi'ite militias.
"We are seeing larger groups of militants actually aggressively attacking Iraqi and US security forces," said Lieutenant Colonel Steve Stover, a military spokesman for American troops in Baghdad. "We've seen more of the brazen attacks in the daytime recently."
The ambush yesterday came as a US patrol of heavily armored Stryker vehicles and tanks moved along a road where the US military is putting up a concrete barrier to cut off the militants' movements and hamper their ability to fire rockets and mortars at the US-protected Green Zone.
The militia fighters struck with rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun barrages fired from alleys and rooftops, the military said.
As the troops pulled back, one vehicle was hit with two roadside bombs, Stover said. Six American soldiers were wounded.
Stover said 28 militiamen were killed when US forces hit back with rockets
Officials at two local hospitals said about 25 people had died and several dozen were wounded - most civilians. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
News photos showed men pulling the dust-covered body of a 2-year-old boy, Ali Hussein, from the rubble of one building.
US officials said all precautions are taken to prevent civilian casualties, but blamed the militiamen for taking cover among their neighbors and families.
"The enemy continues to show little regard for innocent civilians, as they fire their weapons from within houses, alleyways, and rooftops upon our soldiers," said Colonel Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the Fourth Infantry Division in Baghdad.
Also in Baghdad, a senior government official was killed in a roadside bombing in the north of the city. Dhia Jodi Jaber, director general at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, was hit by a roadside bomb as he left his home, spokesman Abdullah al-Lami said.
Separately, an Iraqi court adjourned until May 20 the trial of Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein's best-known lieutenants, and seven other defendants over charges of allegedly ordering the executions of dozens of merchants for profiteering.
The judge postponed the trial half an hour after it started, saying co-defendant Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein's cousin who is known as "Chemical Ali," was too ill to attend.