Iraqi civilians flee clashes; 3,500 U.S. troops to return home

By Selcan Hacaoglu, BAGHDAD, AP

A rocket slammed into Baghdad’s city hall and another one hit a downtown park Tuesday, as more frightened civilians fled from a Shiite extremist stronghold where U.S.-led forces are stuck in fierce street battles with militiamen.

The U.S. military slowly closed in on the teeming Sadr City neighborhood of some 2.5 million people and tried to clear pockets of militias. One U.S. soldier was killed in an attack by Sunni insurgents in the northern city of Mosul on Tuesday, the military said.

For Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, the crackdown is yet another test for his determination to restore order in Iraq, which is divided along sectarian and ethnic lines. He has vowed to disarm all militants even as he faced accusations from supporters of radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr of committing crimes against his own people.

Hassan al Rubaie, a Sadrist lawmaker, suspended his seat in parliament on Tuesday to protest the fighting in Sadr City. He said he held al Maliki’s government responsible for the fighting.

The lawmaker also blamed Iran for interfering with Iraq’s security and said the neighboring nation was causing much of the violence by supplying money, weapons and training to Iraqi fighters, a charge U.S. commanders have repeatedly made. Iran denies the allegations.

The U.S. troops and Iraqi soldiers, responding to a rocket attack Monday evening, killed six militants in Sadr City, the military said Tuesday. The troops fired two rounds from an Abrams tank to kill the assailants. An attack aircraft fired two Hellfire missiles and killed three militants, who were planting a roadside bomb in the Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad early Tuesday, it added.

At least four civilians were killed and 21 people were wounded overnight in Sadr City, hospital officials said Tuesday.

A senior member of the local city hall council in Sadr City estimated that 8,000 families fled the slum area since the clashes began in late March. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of security reasons. The figure could not be independently verified.

Mulkiya Methour, an angry woman wearing the traditional black head-to-toe abaya, said Tuesday many families fled Sadr City recently.