BAGHDAD (AFP) — At least 37 people were killed in Baghdad's Shiite militia bastion of Sadr City on Tuesday, as gunmen clashed with US soldiers under cover of a severe sandstorm.
Several rockets or mortar rounds also struck the Iraqi capital's heavily fortified government compound, as militants took advantage of the absence of US air cover during the storm, witnesses said.
In one of the most intense firefights in weeks, the American soldiers killed 28 militants in Sadr City, stronghold of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the military said.
Four US soldiers were also wounded in the fighting that began at around 9:30 am (0630 GMT).
The fighting erupted when a US patrol was targeted with small-arms fire that wounded one soldier, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover told AFP.
As the soldier was being evacuated, a US vehicle was struck by two roadside bombs, small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
The "complex" attack damaged the vehicle and wounded three other soldiers, Stover said, adding that another US vehicle was later damaged by a third roadside bomb.
The US military said its soldiers defended themselves and "killed 28 militants in a four-hour" battle.
Residents said US forces also launched two air strikes in the area which heavily damaged four houses.
Pictures taken by an AFP photographer showed a number of bodies buried under the debris of the four houses.
But Stover denied that aircraft had been used. The sandstorm had largely grounded US helicopters.
Instead he said US troops used heavy rockets against the militants.
"It was these militants who initiated the engagement by attacking US soldiers," he said.
Iraqi officials said nine people, including three women and a child, were also killed in the clashes.
"We continually show great restraint and professionalism when attacked and clearly identify the enemy before engaging their positions," said US commander Colonel Allen Batschelet in a statement.
"The enemy continues to show little regard for innocent civilians, as they fire their weapons from within houses, alleyways and rooftops upon our soldiers.
Iraqi and US forces have been fighting Shiite militiamen in Sadr City since March 25, with some 480 militants and civilians killed to date, according to an AFP tally based on US and Iraqi figures.
At least 18 US soldiers have been killed in Baghdad since the fighting erupted.
The US military says its troops are deployed only in the southern section of Sadr City in a bid to prevent rocket or mortar fire against the Green Zone, the seat of the US embassy as well as the Iraqi government.
Militants fired several rockets or mortar rounds into the compound on Tuesday, a witness said.
The US military says that those fighting its troops are not loyal to Sadr who has frozen the activities of his Mahdi Army militia since last August.
On Friday, Sadr called for a halt to the fighting against Iraqi government troops, saying that a recent threat he had made to launch an all-out war was directed only at US forces.
Sadr's spokesman Saleh al-Obeidi said the new fighting was "defeating any chance of a solution to the crisis in a peaceful way".
"What is going on in Sadr City is a crime against humanity. Nobody can accept it. We condemn this crime committed by the occupier," he said.
North of Baghdad, in the town of Mukhisa in Diyala province, a female suicide bomber killed two members of a local anti-Qaeda group, the US military said.
Further north, around the oil city of Kirkuk four people were killed and 15 wounded in two bomb attacks, Police Captain Abdullah Hussein said.
A bomb in a shop in the city centre selling Iraqi military equipment killed three civilians and wounded seven, he said.
A second bomb north of the city killed a civilian and wounded eight people, three of them soldiers from a passing patrol that was the target of the attack.
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