A raging, daylong battle erupted in central Baghdad on Tuesday, and four Iraqi soldiers were killed, 16 U.S. soldiers were wounded and a U.S. helicopter was hit by ground fire at the close of the second month of the massive security crackdown on the capital.
Sixty miles to the north, in the mostly Sunni city of Muqdadiyah, a woman with a suicide vest strapped beneath her black Muslim robe blew herself up in the midst of 200 Iraqi police recruits. The attack killed at least 16 men waiting to learn if they had been hired.
The security crackdown, which began Feb. 14 and will see nearly 170,000 American troops in Iraq by the end of May, has curbed some sectarian attacks and assassinations in the capital. But violence continues to flare periodically in Baghdad and has risen markedly in nearby cities and towns.
The fierce fighting in central Baghdad shut down the Sunni-dominated Fadhil and Sheik Omar neighborhoods just after 7 a.m., the U.S. military said. After American and Iraqi troops came under fire during a routine search operation, helicopter gunships swooped in, engaging insurgents with machine gun fire.
Some Arab television stations reported an American helicopter was shot down in the fight, and showed video of a charred piece of mechanical wreckage that was impossible to identify. The U.S. issued a statement late Tuesday saying an attack helicopter suffered damage from small arms fire but returned to base.
Several blocks from the battle, a rocket slammed into a schoolyard basketball court, killing a 6-year-old boy. AP Television News videotape showed children's backpacks and books still open on classroom desks, covered with shattered glass and debris. Blood was pooled on the dusty tile floor.
Police said it was a stray Katyusha rocket that dug into the asphalt playground and at least 17 were wounded — 15 students and two teachers.In other developments:The Pentagon is considering extending the tours of duty for up to 15,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq. That's according to a senior official, who says the plan would have to be approved by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, believes the troop increase that President Bush ordered in January has produced some momentum in fighting violence, so the official says Petraeus wants to maintain higher troop levels past the summer.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, on a four-day trip to Japan, said Tuesday that there was no need to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from his country. "We see no need for a withdrawal timetable. We are working as fast as we can," al-Maliki told reporters. "To demand the departure of the troops is a democratic right and a right we respect. What governs the departure at the end of the day is how confident we are in the handover process."
Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of two Shiite holy cities Monday, demanding that U.S. forces leave their country. The rally, called for by rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, marked the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. Al-Sadr, who remains in seclusion and did not attend, ordered the march as a show of strength not only to Washington but to Iraq's establishment Shiite ayatollahs as well.
Detainees in a province northeast of Baghdad will be feed if they were not involved in killing Iraqis, the Defense Ministry said Tuesday. Al-Maliki has approved amnesty for detainees accused of lesser crimes in Diyala province, the ministry said in a statement. It did not explain what would happen to detainees accused of killing American troops, and a spokesman was not immediately available to elaborate.
The U.S. military said Tuesday it had captured more than 150 suspected insurgents in a nearly two-week operation north of Baghdad. Rocket-propelled grenades and launchers, automatic machine guns, sniper rifles and anti-tank mines were also seized, it said.
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