BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Fighting between Shi’ite militiamen and security forces in Sadr City eased on Sunday after a week of intense clashes, with hospitals in the Baghdad slum saying they had received no dead or wounded overnight.
Over a hundred people have been killed in Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s east Baghdad stronghold since fighting began between his masked Mehdi Army militia and U.S. and Iraqi troops in the streets of the slum one week ago.
Twenty U.S. soldiers have died across Iraq since last Sunday, the deadliest week for U.S. troops this year and one of the bloodiest since September 2007.
The fighting has highlighted the fragility of security gains seen in Iraq since mid-2007, when additional U.S. troops were sent to restore order amid an upturn in insurgent attacks.
A Reuters reporter who spent the night in Sadr City said the slum had been relatively quiet overnight, with only sporadic gunfire. Iraqi forces appeared to be blocking some road exits from Sadr City on Sunday morning, causing traffic to back up.
A U.S. military spokesman described the situation as “calmer” and said there had been no new reports of killings in the sprawling district. Sadr City’s two hospitals said they had experienced the quietest night in weeks.
“We didn’t have any casualties overnight, but we don’t want to get too optimistic,” said Qasim al-Mudalal, director of the Imam Ali hospital. “We hope this will continue, that we get some breathing space and the suffering of the city comes to an end.”
But it was unclear whether the quieter streets meant the clashes were nearing an end or only signalled a pause in fighting sparked last month by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s crackdown on Sadr’s militia in the southern city of Basra.
In a statement issued by Sadr’s office in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf on Saturday, the anti-American cleric showed no signs he was ready to call off his fighters.
“You (infidels) will always be an enemy and you will remain so until the last drop of my blood,” Sadr said in the statement, issued in response to comments the previous day from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
“If you don’t withdraw from our land or set a timetable for withdrawal acceptable to the Iraqi people, we will resist in the way we see fit.”
Gates had said in Washington that Sadr would not be treated as an enemy by the United States as long as he played a peaceful role in Iraqi politics.
The United States has 160,000 troops in Iraq, 20,000 of whom are due to head home by July, but President George W. Bush has resisted pressure from Democrats to commit to further cuts.
In one Saturday incident in the New Baghdad district, adjacent to Sadr City, a U.S. Apache helicopter fired two missiles at militants placing roadside bombs.
While the first strike killed two of the militants, the second missile “overshot”, the U.S. military said on Sunday, setting alight a U.S. military vehicle and nearby houses.
Two U.S. soldiers and three civilians were wounded and the U.S. military said it was investigating the “misfire”.
“(These) events are unfortunate and our apologies go out to those innocent civilians who were affected,” Colonel Bill Buckner, a military spokesman, said in a statement.
Critics say U.S. forces often fire on militants without taking reasonable care to find out who else is in the area. The U.S. military says militants deliberately use civilians as shields against its forces.