US forces further intensified their offensive against the Shiite militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric, conducting a ground and air operation Sunday in Baghdad's teeming Sadr City slum. The attack left at least 49 militants dead, according to an American military statement.
The US military said it was going after rogue elements of the Mahdi Army that it calls "Special Groups," which the US says receive funding, training, and weapons from Iran. The target of this operation, they said, specialized in "kidnapping operations."
Last October, a US Army translator was kidnapped, and in May three US soldiers and five Britons – four security contractors and a civilian – were abducted in separate incidents.
Fighting started when soldiers were attacked with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades from buildings at the start of the raid. Troops returned fire, killing 33. Six more gunmen were killed in air strikes. Another 10 militants were killed in additional clashes when US troops were attacked as they left the area, added the military.
"Ground forces reported they were unaware of any innocent civilians being killed as a result of this operation," said the US statement, without indicating whether the target of the operation was detained or killed.
But in what has become a classic pattern of events in the aftermath of similar operations in Sadr City, both witnesses and officials from Mr. Sadr's movement who live in the area gave a different death toll and version of events.
Salah al-Okaili, a Sadrist parliamentarian, said at least 10 people were killed and 62 wounded, most of them civilians. Another resident, Rahim Abdel-Karim, said funerals for 15 people killed in the operation were held in the area.
State-funded Al Iraqiya television gave a toll of 10 killed and 30 wounded, adding that most of those killed were civilians. It showed footage of women wailing and slapping their faces at funeral processions. The Associated Press said it had photos and video footage of dead and wounded children from the operation.
The operation comes a day after US and Iraqi forces arrested 30 fighters linked to Sadr's militia in the city of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad, which has seen renewed fighting and a series of attacks against coalition and Iraqi forces in the province of Qadisiyah last week that have left at least 13 Iraqis dead.
Last week, US and Iraqi forces also arrested two members of the provincial council in Diwaniyah from the Sadrist movement on charges of being linked to the militia, according to Nassar al-Rubaie, another Sadrist member of the Iraqi parliament.
Commenting on the US raid in Sadr City, Mr. Rubai said, "It's barbaric, disgusting, and against all international conventions. Most of those killed were women and children." Sadr City is home to one-third of Baghdad estimated 5 million residents.
In both Sadr City and Diwaniyah, the US military said it was targeting "criminals" or rogue elements of Sadr's group who have failed to abide by the cleric's call for a freeze on all activities. That announcement came in August after clashes with rival Shiite factions in the shrine city of Karbala.
Mr. Abdel-Karim, a resident of Sadr City, said he saw 10 US Stryker combat vehicles arrive in his neighborhood at about 10:30 p.m. local time Saturday. He said they were quickly attacked by militiamen in the area prompting a fierce fight that lasted nearly 10 hours.
Several loud explosions could be heard across the capital at about 6:30 a.m.
He said several homes, neighborhood power generators, and at least 25 cars were badly damaged in the fighting.
"People are very angry at the silence of the Iraqi government over these unprovoked actions by the US military," said Mr. Okaili, the Sadrist parliamentarian.
On Sunday, hundreds of local residents, wailing and chanting "There is no God but Allah," carried wooden coffins through the streets.
US military spokesman Maj. Winfield Danielson said: "When we engage hostile threats, we make every effort to protect innocent civilians."
There was no immediate response from Iraq's government, but it has harshly criticized the US military in the past for operations that have resulted in the loss of civilian life.
The military gave no details about the kidnap victims, apart from the dates they were abducted – this May and last November.
Three US soldiers were kidnapped in an Al Qaeda stronghold south of Baghdad in May. The body of one was found later that month but the other two are classed as missing and captured. Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the abductions.
The same month, the five Britons were abducted in the Iraqi capital in an attack blamed on Mahdi Army militants.
A US Army translator of Iraqi descent was kidnapped in Baghdad on Oct. 23 last year when he went to visit relatives. His family said he was taken by the members of the Mahdi Army.
Sadr froze the activities of the Mahdi Army after 52 were killed in gun battles between rival Shiite militias in the city of Karbala.
On another front, Kurdish rebels ambushed a Turkish military unit near Turkey's border with Iraq early Sunday, killing 12 soldiers and increasing pressure on the Turkish government to stage attacks against guerrilla camps in Iraq.
Turkey's parliament earlier this week overwhelmingly passed a motion authorizing its military to launch an offensive into northern Iraq against hideouts of the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Sunday's death toll raises the number of soldiers killed in PKK attacks in the past two weeks to around 30. On Sunday, Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, met with Massoud Barzani head of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, where most of the rebels are believed to be holed up.