BAGHDAD -- The U.S. Army said they were militants. Sadr City residents said at least some were civilians, and photographs showed the dust-covered body of at least one child being pulled from a mountain of rubble after yesterday's fighting.
Whatever the facts, at least 28 people were dead after the four-hour battle, the latest in a showdown between U.S. and Iraqi forces and Shiite militiamen over recent weeks.
Based on the photographs, it appeared that at least one of the dead was a civilian. In its captions, Associated Press identified the boy in the red shorts being carried from the ruins of a house as 2-year-old Ali Hussein.
The destruction and death toll underscore the intensity of fighting in Sadr City, where U.S. forces are pursuing militants who often operate from the narrow alleyways and crowded residential sectors of the sprawling Shiite stronghold. Clashes have occurred there nearly every day since the end of March, when an Iraqi military crackdown on Shiite militias sparked an uprising by fighters loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
With many of Sadr City's main roads peppered with roadside bombs and its side streets too narrow for U.S. tanks or other heavy vehicles to navigate, U.S. forces often call in airstrikes or use guided rockets against their targets.
Locals say civilians are often caught in the violence.
The military says it does everything it can to avoid this. In a statement yesterday, a military spokesman responded angrily to the accusations that troops had killed civilians in the latest battle.
"The rockets struck militants firing from buildings, alleyways and rooftops," Lt. Col. Steven Stover wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "We are NOT targeting law-abiding civilians. Those targeted were firing weapons at U.S. soldiers."
Stover said the clashes began in the late morning as troops evacuating a U.S. soldier wounded by small-arms fire came under attack. Two bombs followed by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade blasts targeted the vehicle trying to get the wounded man to safety, Stover said.
A third bomb hit another vehicle. U.S. forces responded with guided rockets launched from the ground. Stover denied residents' claims that helicopters fired on them from the air.
He said six Americans were injured in the fighting, but their injuries were not life-threatening.
Violence also rocked Iraq's Sunni Muslim stronghold of Diyala province, north of Baghdad. Police said a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the village of Mukhisa, killing one person and injuring five.
The victims were members of the local Awakening movement, which consists of people who have volunteered to work alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces to fight insurgents.
In Baghdad, Dhia Jodi Jaber, the director-general of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, was killed. Some reports said he was shot to death while in his motorcade, but others said a roadside bomb had killed him.
Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.