BAGHDAD, IRAQ — U.S. and Iraqi soldiers clashed with gunmen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr early yesterday, trading fire in a long-running gunbattle that broke nearly a year of calm between U.S. soldiers and militiamen in the Shiite slums of Sadr City.
The fighting in the densely populated enclave of eastern Baghdad came on a day that left more than 20 people dead in a series of insurgent attacks across the country.
Eight people, including several members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, were killed in the fighting in Sadr City, Iraqi officials said. A spokesman at al-Sadr's offices put the death count at four. No U.S. or Iraqi soldiers were reported injured in the fighting.
U.S. military officials said the trouble started about 12:30 a.m. when Iraqi troops entered Sadr City to try to capture three suspected insurgents
Gunmen ambushed the Iraqi soldiers in several locations. U.S. troops on patrol in the area came to assist and became engaged in a 90-minute firefight that left five to eight gunmen dead, the U.S. military reported.
The suspected insurgents who the Iraqis were hunting were not captured.
"I am concerned about the events early this morning, but I do not believe this action reflects a pattern of change leading to more violence," said Col. Joseph DiSalvo, commander of coalition forces in east Baghdad. "I am working with Iraqi leaders in Sadr City to keep the situation calm."
Sheik Abbas al-Rubaie, an aide to al-Sadr, said U.S. and Iraqi forces instigated the attack, firing indiscriminately on the Mahdi Army and civilian watchmen guarding the streets.
"They are trying to pull the Mahdi Army into battle in such a serious time before the elections," he said.
But witnesses in Sadr City said Mahdi Army members fired first on U.S. and Iraqi soldiers as they gathered outside the home of an aide to al-Sadr. The witnesses said the militiamen and civilian watchmen guarding a row of shops near the house called on the soldiers to leave the city before they fired.
Al-Sadr, who typically delivers his thoughts through intermediaries, did not comment.
Several hours after the skirmish in Sadr City, a suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle near an Iraqi police convoy as it traveled through central Baghdad.
The blast, which could be heard miles away and sprayed pieces of metal onto passing traffic on a nearby highway, killed at least nine, including seven police commandos and two civilians, the Interior Ministry reported.
In the southern city of Hillah, a bicycle bomb exploded near a music shop in a crowded shopping area, leaving two dead and injuring dozens.
Seven people, including two children, were killed when mortar shells exploded in a commercial district in the northern city of Samarra, Agence France-Presse reported.
In a separate attack, six civilians were killed and 19 others were wounded in a mortar attack in Musayyib, 35 miles south of Baghdad, AFP reported.
The U.S. military also reported that a soldier assigned to the 56th Combat Brigade Team was killed and two others were injured when their vehicle rolled over near the western town of Trebil yesterday. The incident was under investigation, the military said.
Aamer Madhani writes for the Chicago Tribune.