BAGHDAD — Dozens of fighters ambushed a U.S. patrol in Baghdad's main Shiite militia stronghold Tuesday, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine gun bursts as the American push into Sadr City increasingly faces pockets of close urban combat.
U.S. forces struck back with 200-pound guided rockets that devastated at least three buildings in the densely packed district that serves as the Baghdad base for the powerful Mahdi Army militia.
Such street battles — in tight confines and amid frightened civilians — are increasingly becoming a hallmark of the drive into Sadr City.
The U.S. military said 28 militiamen were killed and six American soldiers were wounded as the U.S. patrol pulled back. Local hospital officials said dozens of civilians were killed or wounded.
Clashes have intensified in Sadr City since the Mahdi Army leader — the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — reiterated his threat of an all-out war against U.S.-led forces last week. U.S. troops, meanwhile, find themselves increasingly drawn into the fight opened by the Iraqi government to cripple the power of Shiite militias.
Officials at two local hospitals said about 25 people died and several dozen were wounded, most of them civilians. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
U.S. officials said all precautions are taken to prevent civilian casualties, but blamed the militiamen for taking cover among their neighbors and families.
"The enemy continues to show little regard for innocent civilians, as they fire their weapons from within houses, alleyways and rooftops upon our soldiers," said Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad.
AP Television News footage showed children running for cover behind blast walls amid gunshots. Men helped carry several blood-soaked injured people onto stretchers to a local emergency hospital.
Meanwhile, two U.S. soldiers were killed in northwestern Baghdad on Tuesday, the military said. One died when his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device. The other died of wounds sustained when he was struck by small-arms fire, the military said. Other details were not immediately available.