BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Fighting in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City killed 23 Iraqis yesterday, hospital officials said, and the U.S. military reported five troop deaths, as April showed signs of becoming the worst month for U.S. forces in Iraq since September.
At least 11 of the Iraqi deaths occurred when mortar shells landed in residential neighborhoods. Men rushed wounded children to overcrowded emergency rooms in Sadr City hospitals, on foot because of a ban on all vehicular traffic. In some parts of Sadr City, masked militiamen bearing machine guns and grenade launchers remained on the streets.
Officials at local hospitals have put the death toll in the neighborhood at more than 70 since Sunday, but it was not clear if those figures included militia fighters.
Thousands of Sadr City residents have fled for other neighborhoods. Prices in local markets were soaring as supplies dwindled, a result of suppliers' inability to bring in goods. Iraqi and U.S. forces appeared to be penetrating deeper into the neighborhood, one local journalist said.
There were no signs that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was pulling back on his offensive against Shiite militias, which has sparked fighting between Iraqi and U.S. forces and militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Maliki's deadline for fighters to hand in heavy weapons expired Tuesday, but the latest clashes showed that rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and rockets remained in militia hands.
Baghdad had spent part of yesterday quieter than in recent days, because of a curfew imposed to prevent clashes and protests marking the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003.
Al-Sadr had called for a huge march in Baghdad to mark the anniversary of Hussein's ouster and to protest the U.S. presence and al-Maliki's offensive. The cleric says the offensive, which began March 25 in the southern city of Basra, is targeting his Mahdi Army and is a ploy to cripple his political movement in advance of provincial elections planned for October.
His fighters have risen up against Iraqi and U.S. forces, virtually collapsing a cease-fire that al-Sadr announced last August and that was credited with bringing a sharp drop in violence nationwide.
Although U.S. and Iraqi officials maintain that they are targeting criminal elements or "special groups" that did not abide by al-Sadr's truce, U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker acknowledged yesterday that the Basra offensive had drawn in others.
"A dangerous development in the immediate wake of the Basra operation was what appeared to be a reunification between special groups and JAM," he told lawmakers in Washington, using the acronym for al-Sadr's militia.
Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, gave lawmakers their assessments of the war during two days of hearings in Washington that ended yesterday.
The surge in troop deaths since the Basra offensive has underscored their contention that security gains witnessed in recent months easily could be reversed. At least 30 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the Basra operation began, most in Baghdad; at least 19 have died in Iraq so far this month, representing the highest daily average since last September.
The deaths announced yesterday brought to at least 4,031 the number of U.S. troops to die in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Brief military statements said three of the soldiers died in roadside bomb blasts: two in northeastern Baghdad and one east of the city. Two others died of "non-combat" injuries, statements said, giving no other details.
Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times