In Baghdad, gunmen on rooftops opened fire on Iraqi soldiers Sunday, prompting fierce fighting in the narrow streets and alleys of one of the capital's oldest neighborhoods, a Sunni insurgent stronghold and a haven for criminals on the east side of the Tigris River. At least two civilians were killed and four others were wounded in the clashes, police said, as U.S. attack helicopters buzzed overhead.
Four U.S. soldiers were killed and two others were wounded Sunday, according to a statement, when an explosion struck their patrol in Diyala province, a religiously mixed area that has seen fierce fighting in recent months.
A roadside bomb also killed a soldier and wounded two others Sunday as they were checking for bombs on a road in northwestern Baghdad, the military said.
Thousands of U.S. reinforcements have been sent to the capital and surrounding areas to help the Iraqis tame the spiraling sectarian violence that flared after the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra more than a year ago.
Sunday's deaths raise to at least 3,239 the members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003 — 114 of those since the security operation started on Feb. 14, according to an Associated Press count. In comparison, 123 U.S. troop deaths were reported in the 40 days preceding the start of the plan.
The clashes between gunmen and Iraqi soldiers in Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood started about 1:30 p.m. when an attack on Iraqi army positions forced soldiers to call for U.S. assistance, Iraqi officials said. The U.S. military said it had no immediate reports about the fighting.
An Iraqi army colonel from the brigade in charge of the area said the gunmen were firing at army checkpoints and patrols from rooftops and the soldiers returned fire. He said the situation had largely calmed by late afternoon, but sporadic clashes continued.
"The soldiers raided some houses believed to be used by the gunmen today. Several suspects were arrested and they are being interrogated," the colonel said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The military sealed off all roads leading to the area, causing traffic jams, according to witnesses and police. Stores closed their doors as the streets emptied of people fleeing the fighting.
"The gunmen were shooting at every moving object. The streets were deserted and all shops closed," said Ghaith Jassim, the 37-year-old owner of a textile store in the area. "These frequent clashes have affected our work. We cannot earn our living. People and traders are afraid of coming to our area."
Jassim said the arrival of U.S. troops in the area briefly stopped the clashes but the fighting resumed when the Americans left.
Fadhil, one of Baghdad's oldest and poorest areas, is ridden with Sunni insurgents and common criminals and its narrow streets and alleys have been the site of frequent clashes.
A helicopter owned by the private security company Blackwater USA crashed in heavy gunfire in the area on Jan. 23, killing four civilian contractors. A fifth contractor in a second helicopter died of gunshot wounds.