US military death toll in Iraq hits 7-month high

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The Independent Online

The US military death toll has reached a seven-month high as America's war in Iraq enters a new phase – with its troops primarily engaged in fighting insurgents from the Shia rather than the Sunni community.

The killing of three US soldiers in Baghdad raised the number killed in April to 47, reversing a trend towards lower American casualties. Half of the losses were in Baghdad, where the US is fighting the Mehdi Army militia loyal to the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Shia losses have been heavy. An Iraqi government spokesman for the civilian side of Baghdad security operations said 925 people had been killed and 2,605 wounded in Sadr City since the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, began his offensive against the Sadrist movement on 25 April.

The US military has been primarily engaged in fighting insurgents from the Sunni community since the invasion of 2003. But over the past month it has been increasingly drawn into a war with Mr Sadr's movement, which has a mass following among the Shia poor.

The US military routinely describes the Shia dead as criminals or gunmen but television reports and hospital sources say many are civilians, including women and children.

In one clash in Sadr City, the US claimed it killed 28 Shia militants but hospital officials said they had received 25 bodies, most of which were civilians. When US forces fired a 200lb rocket which destroyed three buildings in the densely-packed slum, Associated Press photos showed men pulling the dust-covered body of a two-year-old, Ali Hussein, from the rubble. The US said all precautions were taken to limit civilian casualties and blamed the militiamen for taking cover where civilians live.

"The enemy continues to show little regard for innocent civilians, as they fire their weapons from within houses, alleyways and roof-tops upon our soldiers," said Colonel Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the 4th Infantry Division in Baghdad.

AP TV showed children running for cover amid the gunfire, as men helped carry injured people on stretchers to an emergency unit. Outside the hospital, the dead were put in plain coffins.

Indiscriminate fire by the American forces, which led to heavy civilian loss of life that the US Army refused to record, played a key role in provoking the uprising in Sunni parts of Iraq after 2003. There are growing signs of rage against the Iraqi government and its US backers in Sadr City. The nephew of Major General Abdul-Karim Khalaf, who oversaw the operation against the Mehdi Army in Basra, was taken from his home in Sadr City and hanged.