BAGHDAD -- U.S. forces firing from helicopters pursued armed militants loyal to a radical anti-American Shiite cleric into a western Baghdad slum yesterday, killing at least 18 people, reportedly including some civilians.
U.S.-led forces said the predawn raid yesterday on the capital's Shula district was in response to an insurgent attack on a U.S. patrol in the area. But residents said the U.S. helicopter attack caught many in the Shiite community controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army asleep on their roofs, where they go to escape the stifling heat of apartments.
Hospital officials reported two women's bodies among those brought to two area morgues, and an al-Sadr spokesman said that four women were among the dead. Angry relatives and neighbors of the killed and injured vowed retribution as they carried the victims' coffins through the teeming streets.
Al-Sadr, whom U.S. military leaders accuse of directing death squads and a campaign of harassment against U.S. troops in Iraq, denounced the air attacks and called on supporters to stage protests across the country.
The U.S. assault "resulted in killing 20 civilians, including women, children and elderly, and injuring tens more, some in critical condition," charged Nassar Rubeii, head of the al-Sadr parliamentary bloc.
He said he held the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responsible.
Rubeii and several other influential imams, speaking at Friday prayers in Shiite strongholds, blamed bloodshed in Iraq on the U.S. presence. "The presence of the occupation forces is attracting terrorism to this country," he said.
A U.S. military statement on the attack in Shula said only that 18 militants had died, adding that "coalition forces take every precaution to mitigate civilian casualties during engagements with hostile forces."
Meanwhile, as a counterinsurgency campaign continues to target suspected sanctuaries of gunmen and bomb-builders, a senior U.S. commander in Iraq dismissed calls to reduce the number of troops, saying it would be a "giant step backwards." Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands more than a third of the 30,000 additional troops deployed to Iraq in recent months, contradicted a call from a prominent Republican senator for Bush to begin reducing troops.
On Thursday, influential Virginia Republican Sen. John W. Warner, a former Navy secretary, called for a reduction.
In another raid yesterday on suspected insurgents in the town of Tarmiya north of Baghdad, multinational forces reported killing seven gunmen.
A U.S. soldier died in combat near Samarra, the U.S. military announced. The death brought to 3,725 the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq since the war began 4 1/2 years ago, according to www.icasualties.org.
Insurgents set off an explosion at a pipeline leading to a suburban Baghdad refinery, sending plumes of black smoke over the capital throughout the day and casting an eerie orange glow on the horizon after dark.
The death of an Iraqi prisoner in U.S. custody at the Camp Cropper detention facility here was also reported. The detained insurgent suspect, who was not identified, died of acute renal failure, the U.S. military reported.
U.S. troop deaths have been averaging 100 a month this year, and the buildup President Bush ordered in January has been under scrutiny by both war critics and supporters as a test of whether it can halt Iraq's slide into civil war.
Pace released a statement yesterday saying that the Joint Chiefs and he were reviewing a range of options and that he would give his advice to Bush in private. "The L.A. Times article is purely speculative," Pace said. "I take very seriously my duty to provide the best military advice to the president."
Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.