U.S. forces battled insurgents loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City on Tuesday in clashes that killed at least 36 people, including one American soldier, and wounded 203, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said.
Five other American soldiers were killed in separate attacks in and around Baghdad on Monday and Tuesday, bringing the U.S. death toll from the past two days to 13.
A total of 997 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to a count by The Associated Press based on Defense Department reports.
U.S. tanks moved into Sadr City and armored personnel carriers and Bradley fighting vehicles were deployed at key intersections. Ambulances with sirens wailing rushed the wounded to hospitals as plumes of black smoke rose over the mainly Shiite neighborhood.
Warplanes flew over the sprawling neighborhood of more than 2 million, firing flares to avoid being hit by anti-aircraft missiles.
In another part of the capital, a roadside bomb targeted the Baghdad governor’s convoy, killing two people but leaving him uninjured, the Interior Ministry said. Three of Gov. Ali al-Haidri’s bodyguards were also hurt.
The fighting in Sadr City erupted when militants attacked U.S. forces carrying out routine patrols, killing one American, said U.S. Army Capt. Brian O’Malley.
A senior Health Ministry official, Saad al-Amili, said a total of 35 people have been killed and 203 injured in the Sadr City clashes. One of the dead was an American soldier killed in a rocket-propelled grenade strike.
An al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad, Sheik Raed al-Kadhimi, blamed what he called intrusive American incursions into Sadr City and attempts to arrest the cleric’s followers.
“Our fighters have no choice but to return fire and to face the U.S. forces and helicopters pounding our houses,” al-Kadhimi said in a statement.
In the slum’s roadways, small groups of Sadr’s Mahdi militia fighters used hammers to dig up the asphalt to plant explosives. Bands of fighters in civilian clothes — mostly in their teens and early 20s — wielded rocket-propelled grenades and trotted toward the clashes, children running in their wake.
Other fighters, rifles in hand, gathered on street corners. Roads leading to the area were blocked by the militiamen using rocks and tires. By early afternoon, most stores in the neighborhood were shut in anticipation of more combat.
The renewed fighting came after a period of calm in the impoverished neighborhood after al-Sadr called on his followers last week to observe a cease-fire and announced he was going into politics.
But al-Sadr aides later said peace talks in Sadr City between the cleric’s representatives and interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s government had stalled, with the government refusing militants’ demands for U.S. troops to keep out of the troubled district.
U.S. commanders have said they want to carry out an assault to clear al-Sadr’s fighters from the disctrict, particularly its northern part where the militiamen are said to have dug in, setting explosives and boobytraps.
Al-Sadr led a three-week uprising in the holy city of Najaf that ended 10 days ago with a peace deal that allowed his Mahdi militia fighters to walk away with their guns. The combat in Najaf left thousands dead and devastated much of the city.
Many Mahdi militiamen are believed to have returned to their stronghold in Sadr City.
Tuesday’s violence came a day after a suicide attack on a military convoy outside Fallujah killed seven U.S. Marines and three Iraqi soldiers, U.S. military officials said. It was the deadliest day for American forces in four months.
A group linked to Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — Tawhid and Jihad — posted a statement on a Web site Tuesday claiming responsibility for the slayings.
The bombing underscored the challenges U.S. commanders face in securing Fallujah and surrounding Anbar province, the heartland of a Sunni Muslim insurgency bent on driving coalition forces from the country.
U.S. forces have not patrolled in Fallujah since a three-week siege of the city in April that was aimed at rooting out militiaman. As a result, insurgents have strengthened their hold on the city, using it as a base to make car bombs and launch attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces.
Besides the American killed in the Sadr City fighting, the five other U.S. deaths since midday Monday reported by the military included:
_ A soldier from the Army’s 13th Corps Support Command was killed in a roadside bomb attack near Qayarrah, just north of Baghdad, at noon Monday.
_ A second soldier from the 13th Corps Support Command was killed by a roadside bomb late Monday.
_ A soldier with Task Force Baghdad died Monday from wounds sustained during an unspecified attack in Baghdad.
_ Another Task Force Baghdad soldier died early Tuesday from wounds sustained from a roadside bombing against his convoy a day earlier in Baghdad.
_ One soldier from the 89th Military Police Brigade was killed by small arms fire Tuesday in west Baghdad.
The Defense Department’s most recent published count, as of Friday, shows 976 U.S. service members dead.
The AP count of 997 is higher because it includes five additional names released by the Defense Department; 15 fatalities since Friday who have not been identified, and one report of an additional fatality from a family that had been notified by the military.
In its published count, the Defense Department also reports three deaths of Defense Department civilians, bringing its total to 979. The AP is limiting its count to service members and so does not include these civilian deaths.
In other violence in Iraq:
_The son of the governor of the northern city of Mosul was killed in a drive-by shooting Tuesday, hospital officials said.
_Unknown gunmen killed the deputy director of Baghdad’s al-Karama hospital, the Health Ministry said. The motive for the attack was not known.
_Two Iraqi policemen were killed and two others injured in a drive-by shooting in Latifiyah, 25 miles south of Baghdad late Monday, police said.