BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military reported yesterday the deaths of eight more troops in Iraq, and fighters believed to be with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Al Mahdi militia pounded British bases in the southern port city of Basra.
Included in the latest U.S. military deaths were three soldiers killed yesterday in a car bomb attack in Salahaddin province in the north; one killed south of Baghdad; one soldier who died in an ambush Friday in Taji, north of Baghdad; and two more who were killed Wednesday in bombing east of Baghdad. A Marine was killed yesterday in Anbar province. The deaths raised U.S. military fatalities to 3,452 since the start of the war in 2003, according to the Web site icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties.
The deaths raised the number of U.S. fatalities to 101 this month, making it the seventh month in which the death toll has surpassed 100 since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
In southern Iraq, 50 mortar rounds were fired at the British-Iraqi joint command center in central Basra, said an Iraqi police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said al-Sadr's Al Mahdi fighters were responsible for the predawn bombardment, which lasted 2 1/2 hours, and British forces retaliated with airstrikes against suspected militia positions.
British military officials confirmed accounts of the fighting. "It is believed that a number of militia were killed in the attack," the British military said in a statement.
The attack appeared to be in response to the killing of Al Mahdi's commander for Basra, Wisam Qader, by the Iraqi special forces backed by British troops.
"We were listening to the mortars falling and exploding all night long," said one Basra resident who identified himself only as Waleed. "It felt as if they were landing directly on the roof of my home. I was frightened for my children and wife, and prefer to die before seeing anything happening to them. We expected a stray mortar to land on our home in any minute."
The British military is planning to hand responsibility for security in Basra province to the government this year despite intense local rivalries among Shiite parties and their militias.
In Baghdad, five militants were killed and one arrested in a joint raid on the Sadr City neighborhood, the U.S. military said in a statement. U.S. forces called in an airstrike when fighters tried to block them from leaving.
An Iraqi police officer said several U.S. airstrikes in the neighborhood killed three civilians and wounded 16.
The arrested fighter, who was not identified, is suspected of being a proxy for Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the military said. He allegedly led a "network known for facilitating the transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran," a U.S. military statement said.
Al-Sadr, who had vanished before the start in February of the U.S.-led Baghdad security plan, materialized for Friday prayers in Kufa, a sacred Shiite city in Iraq's mid-Euphrates region.
In his sermon, al-Sadr called for Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Christians to unite against the U.S.-led "occupation" and called on his followers not to be drawn into fighting with Iraqi security forces. Iraqi and U.S. officials said they believe al-Sadr had been in Iran before his return.
Meanwhile, in a bid to reach out to Iraq's Sunnis, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki paid a visit to Anbar province, where Sunni tribes have been fighting al-Qaida militants since September. It was al-Maliki's second visit to the province since March.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and military commander Gen. David Petraeus accompanied him. Al-Maliki met with the governor and security officials of the province, where the Shiite prime minister's government is often viewed with suspicion.
In other violence, 20 bodies were found around Baghdad, most of them bearing gunshot wounds and showing signs of torture, police said.
In the western Baghdad neighborhood of Bayaa, the body of a kidnapped traffic police colonel was found. Also in the district, a car bomb killed four people and wounded 25 others, while a mortar shell also claimed a life.
Ned Parker writes for the Los Angeles Times.