U.S. and Iraqi forces have raided the stronghold of an anti-Western Shiite cleric, killing approximately 26 suspected militants and detaining 17 others. The U.S. military accuses the suspects of links to Iranian terror cells. From Baghdad, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.
Before dawn on Saturday, U.S. and Iraqi forces, backed by helicopters, launched two separate raids on the Shiite district of Sadr City, the stronghold of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.
U.S. military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver, says American troops entered the Shiite enclave in search of militants suspected of helping Iranian terror networks fund operations in Iraq.
"The secret cell networks are responsible for bringing explosively formed penetrators, lethal aid, money and facilitation of fighters for training to and from Iran," he said.
Garver says during the raids coalition forces on the ground came under heavy attack.
"There were rocket-propelled grenade teams all around shooting at them," he added. "There were terrorists engaging them from behind cars and from buildings in the area as well."
The military denies claims from Iraqi police and hospital officials that all the dead were civilians killed in their homes, not militants.
"Every individual who was shot during these raids was firing at coalition troops as they were engaged," said Garver.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who owes much of his political power to Sadr, issued a statement saying he would demand a clarification from coalition forces on what happened during the raids.
He said the government targets all outlaws no matter their political, ethnic or sectarian affiliation, but refuses to bring harm to civilians and their property under the guise of fighting terrorists or militias.
More than two million people live in Sadr City, the stronghold of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia has been blamed for much of the sectarian killing in the capital.
In a separate development, Lieutenant Colonel Garver says media reports Friday that the decapitated bodies of 20 Iraqis were found south of Baghdad are false.
"After extensive research, multi-national force does not believe that this incident happened," he said. "Both U.S. and Iraqi officials have researched exhaustively into the morgues and the hospitals and conducted interviews in the area and we just cannot find any evidence that that indeed did happen."
Also, the U.S. military has charged two American soldiers with the premeditated murders of three unarmed Iraqis.
Staff Sergeant Michael Hensley and Specialist Jorge Sandoval are charged with killing the three in separate incidents and with leaving weapons by their bodies to make them look like gunmen.
The murders are alleged to have taken place between April and June about 50 kilometers south of Baghdad near Iskandariyah.
The military says charges were brought after other soldiers reported the two to military authorities. The soldiers are considered innocent until proven guilty by a military court.