BAGHDAD -- A U.S. search for fighters allegedly linked to Iran turned into a firefight early yesterday in which the military said it killed 26 militants. The Iraqi government rebuked the Americans for carrying out the raid in a Baghdad slum without its permission, and local leaders said many civilians had been hurt.
Meanwhile, two U.S. soldiers have been charged with premeditated murder in connection with the deaths of three Iraqis, and with planting weapons on the bodies in order to cover up the crimes, the Army announced yesterday.
The raid could stir further difficulties for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite-dominated government is in a confrontation with Iraq's leading Sunni bloc. The bloc is boycotting the Cabinet over the arrest warrant against Culture Minister Asad Kamal Hashimi in the slaying of two sons of an independent Sunni legislator.
The U.S. military could face a backlash from al-Maliki's government over the predawn raids in Sadr City, the bastion of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and home to more than 2.5 million people. A failure to stand up to the Americans might erode backing for al-Maliki's fragile coalition government among the general Shiite population, who form the bulwark of his support.
Al-Maliki, who has been in a tug of war with U.S. commanders about raids in Sadr City, quickly issued a statement criticizing the Americans for not clearing the operation with the Iraqi government. He said the government "refuses" to permit the U.S. military to "carry out any military operation in any Iraqi province or city without first acquiring permission from the leadership of the Iraqi forces."
The U.S. military said that 26 terrorists who attacked soldiers with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs had been killed. Seventeen more militants were detained in the operation against extremists with "close ties to Iranian terror networks," the military said.
But representatives from al-Sadr's movement and civilians said the Americans had opened fire mostly on bystanders.
Previously, al-Maliki has signed off on raids in Sadr City on a case-by-case basis, but this time he seemed no longer willing to back the targeting of the Mahdi Army.
The soldiers facing murder charges were identified as Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley of Candler, N.C., and Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., of Laredo, Texas. Hensley faces three counts of premeditated murder, obstructing justice and planting weapons. Sandoval faces one count of premeditated murder and a count of planting a weapon.
Military officials say the crimes took place between April and June around Iskandariya, about 30 miles south of Baghdad.
Both soldiers are being held in solitary confinement in Kuwait.
The men had been based in Iraq with the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division from Fort Richardson, Alaska.
The investigation, conducted by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, was opened after fellow soldiers informed commanders of their suspicions. The men face Article 32 hearings, which will determine the veracity of the charges and, if merited, send them on for court-martial proceedings.
Raheem Salman and Ned Parker write for the Los Angeles Times.