3 U.S. soldiers die in Baghdad rocket attacks

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Rocket attacks against the Green Zone and a U.S. military base in Baghdad killed three U.S. soldiers and injured 31 yesterday while more than 20 people died in fresh clashes between U.S. forces and the Shiite Mahdi Army militia in the volatile Sadr City enclave, despite a cease-fire declared last week.

The renewed violence came as the country's squabbling Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions rallied behind the Iraqi government's effort to confront the Mahdi Army militia, giving a boost to beleaguered Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are to testify before Congress tomorrow on progress in the Iraq war, and the fighting is certain to intensify the questioning as to whether their strategy is working.

Two of the U.S. soldiers died when a rocket struck the heavily fortified Green Zone, which had been relatively calm since the cease-fire was declared last Sunday. At least 17 others were injured in the midafternoon attack, a U.S. military official said.

The third U.S. soldier was killed and 14 were injured in a rocket attack at about the same time on the U.S. military base at Rustamiyah in eastern Baghdad.

A fourth U.S. soldier was killed in an unrelated roadside bombing in the troubled province of Diyala, the military said.

Though the intensity of yesterday's rocket fire was far lower than it had been during the peak of the fighting for Basra late last month, the casualty toll was unusually high. Dozens of rockets slammed into the Green Zone during al-Maliki's recent offensive aimed at wresting control of the southern city of Basra from militias, but the attacks abated after a cease-fire brokered by Iran heralded an end to the worst of the fighting.

Two Americans, a civilian contractor and a government employee, died in the earlier attacks on the Green Zone, which the military has blamed on militias operating out of Sadr City, the Shiite slum neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad controlled by the Mahdi Army.

It was unclear what had triggered the latest eruption of fighting in Sadr City, which has been under curfew for the past ten days.

Residents said U.S. and Iraqi soldiers fought running battles with militiamen starting overnight Saturday. Rockets apparently aimed at a U.S. military checkpoint ignited a huge blaze at the usually crowded Jamila market, sending a plume of smoke billowing over the city.

A spokesman for the Sadrist movement said the U.S. military and Iraqi army had violated the terms of last week's cease-fire agreement by continuing to raid Mahdi Army strongholds even though Mahdi Army fighters are observing a cease-fire.

"There is no excuse or justification for this operation. The army of the Imam are sticking to the instructions of Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr to return to civilian life," said Sadrist official Liwa Smeism.

Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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