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Baghdad's Sadr City residents fear intensifying fight

A rare daytime US airstrike in Sadr City on Thursday came as residents said that soldiers were warning them to leave parts of the district, which is a bastion of support for the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

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Iraqi health officials reported Wednesday that the toll in the Sadr City fighting had surpassed 1,000, while on Thursday humanitarian agencies said delivering food, medicine, and other assistance to the neighborhood – sometimes reduced to one entry and exit – was becoming more difficult.

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Meanwhile, Sadr City residents in the embattled southeast corner of the district reported that soldiers – some said Iraqis, others said Arabic speakers in US military vehicles – used loudspeakers to encourage residents of the area to leave. The US military called the reports "rumors," but some residents said the messages confirmed speculation running through the neighborhood for days that the government is planning a major offensive.

Adding to residents' expectations of an imminent escalation was an early Thursday raid by Iraqi Army soldiers that shut down Al Aahad, a local radio station run by Sadr loyalists.

Earlier this week, Mr. Maliki said he would not call off the battle with what government officials say are illegally armed outlaws operating in Sadr City.

The US military has tried to avoid being drawn into a fight with Sadr, recently limiting its references to the Mahdi Army and instead blaming the Sadr City fighting on "criminals" and "special groups" that it says are armed and trained by Iran.

But almost daily American involvement in the fighting, usually to back up Iraqi forces who have sometimes been overpowered by the militants, has brought US forces into skirmishes with Sadr supporters. Last week, Sadr confirmed in a statement that his fighters are authorized to fight what he considers the "occupying forces."

The US incursion into northern Sadr City that residents described suggested the US may be broadening its involvement in the fight to areas outside the southernmost sector it has said it wants to rid of indirect fire launching. Part of the US plan is to build a wall around the southern third of Sadr City to secure it from the rest of the district.

The US focus on the southern part of Sadr City left residents all the more surprised by the fighting they described in the northern section outside the security wall.

"We did not expect that," Abu Hawaraa said, adding that it led to a fight that left several houses destroyed. "The Americans came in with Humvees and tanks, but some of those vehicles did not get out," he said. "I saw by my own eyes that two of the humvees" and at least two other vehicles were destroyed.

Awadh al-Taiee in Baghdad contributed reporting.