Confusion on Deaths After Fighting in Sadr City
By ALISSA J. RUBIN | October 22, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 21 — American forces on Sunday came under heavy fire in three locations in Sadr City, the Shiite enclave in Baghdad, and returned fire, killing 49 militants, according to an American military official and a military statement about the episode.
Iraqi witnesses said that 17 people had been killed, one of whom was an elderly woman who died of her wounds, and that of 40 people who had been wounded, a number were children. At least four of the wounded children were at Imam Ali Hospital in Sadr City, where family members helped the overtaxed hospital staff and anxiously hovered over the children.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said in a statement that the American military should avoid using excessive force that ran the risk of harming civilians and that the government would investigate the episode. However, he did not condemn the attack outright. The Iraqi government has given tacit approval for a number of similar American raids on both Sunni Arab and Shiite militants.
In the operation, American soldiers were searching for an Iraqi who is believed to be in charge of a kidnapping ring. “Our objective was to go in and locate one high-value target responsible for an extensive Iranian-backed kidnapping ring,” said the military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the military is still gathering data about the attack.
The operation failed to capture the man, but as it was under way, American soldiers came under heavy fire from gunmen using automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, the statement said. The soldiers called for air support and the military said that at least 33 people were killed by ground fire in the initial engagement and 6 others by air attacks. As the American forces tried to leave the area, heavy fire continued and the attackers detonated a roadside bomb. Ten other Iraqi fighters were killed as the Americans tried to withdraw, the military statement said.
Although the area has been controlled by the militia of the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, militia members have been quiet since late August when Mr. Sadr asked them to lay down their arms. The suspension of militia operations has allowed the American military to focus its attacks on people who have continued to fight despite Mr. Sadr’s call for a truce. The military contends that at least some of those still fighting have links to Iran.
For Sadr City residents in the areas where the fighting was under way, at least some of whom appeared to have nothing to do with Mr. Sadr’s militia, the gunfire was terrifying. Two cousins, Murtada Saiedi, 8, and Ali Saiedi, 11, were walking home at 6:15 a.m. after buying fresh samoun for their families. Samoun is a triangular bread beloved by Iraqis for breakfast.
“I was holding the samoun in my arms in a big bag,” said Ali Saiedi, adding that he was taking the bread home for his eight siblings and his parents. “Then I heard a big sound and I tried to run, I wanted to reach my home, but I couldn’t.
“And then when I woke up, I was here,” he said, as he lay in a bed at the Imam Ali Hospital with bandages on his arms from shrapnel cuts.
His cousin, Murtada Saiedi, in the next bed, would not speak. He winced as he shifted his weight in the bed and looked up silently at his father and uncle, who were leaning over the child. The doctor had just come by to say that he thought Murtada might have some internal bleeding.
An official at the hospital, Abu Ibrahim, said an elderly woman whose midsection had been nearly severed by shrapnel died Sunday evening, bringing the total dead at the hospital to 16. There were 38 wounded who were admitted to the hospital, he said. Officials at a second hospital in the neighborhood reported one dead and two wounded.
The military said it did not believe there were any civilian deaths as a result of the fighting. “Ground forces reported they were unaware of any innocent civilians being killed as a result of this operation,” the military statement said.
The episode highlights the difficulty of determining the facts after military operations, especially ones involving firefights in which much happens quickly. The military said the reason so few bodies were taken to hospitals was that the militants picked up the bodies of their own people to prevent American soldiers from gaining intelligence about them.
In cases where Iraqi casualty numbers are far higher than American numbers, the American military sometimes says the discrepancy is a result of exaggeration by Iraqis. In any individual occurrence it is hard to tell which factors play the most important role.
Outside of Baghdad on Sunday, preparations were under way in Anbar Province for a parade in honor of the tribal councils that have been fighting Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown extremist organization that American intelligence sources say has some foreign leadership.
The celebration on Monday will be just two days after a tribal delegation from Karbala Province, which is primarily Shiite, came to meet with the Anbar sheiks to discuss border issues of concern to both of them. The sheiks agreed that they needed to work together to secure the border between the provinces. The Karbala sheiks are worried that without a tough and organized security plan, Sunni Arab militants might migrate to Karbala.
Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Mudhafer al-Husaini contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Karbala and Anbar.