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U.S.: 49 Militants Killed In Sadr City

U.S. ground forces and attack helicopters on Sunday inflicted one of the highest single-operation death tolls since the end of active combat, killing an estimated 49 militants during a dawn raid to capture an Iranian-linked militia chief in Baghdad's Sadr City Shiite enclave.

Iraqi officials, who often overstate casualties, reported only 13 deaths, including women and children. The U.S. military said it was not aware of any civilian casualties, and the discrepancy in the death tolls and accounts of what happened could not be reconciled. American commanders reported no U.S. casualties.

The punishing attack grew out of a dawn raid into the dangerous Shiite slum to capture an alleged rogue militia chief, one of thousands of fighters who have broken with Muqtada al-Sadr's mainstream Mahdi Army. The Shiite cleric has ordered gunmen loyal to him to put down their arms, but thousands of members dissatisfied with being taken out of the fight have formed a loose confederation that is armed and trained by Iran.

The U.S. operation was the latest in a series that have produced significant death tolls, including civilians, as American forces increasingly take the fight to Sunni insurgents, al Qaeda militants and Shiite militiamen.

The intensity and frequency of American attacks and raids have grown exponentially since the arrival of the last of 30,000 additional soldiers on June 15.

The increased force was ordered into Iraq earlier this year by U.S. President George W. Bush and has inflicted a heavy toll on militants on both sides of Iraq's sectarian divide. American commanders credit the troop buildup for a sharp drop in the number of attacks and deaths of U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, particularly in the past two months.

As U.S. forces pounded Sadr City, the potential grew for a fresh explosion of fighting on a new front, Iraq's northern border with Turkey. The parliament in Ankara had already authorized cross-border attacks by the Turkish military against Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, insurgents, who take shelter in the rugged mountains on the Iraqi side of the frontier.

Early Sunday, Kurdish rebels ambushed a military unit inside Turkey and killed at least 12 soldiers. Turkish forces responded by lobbing at least 15 artillery shells toward mainly abandoned Kurdish villages inside Iraq, according to Iraqi border guard Col. Hussein Rashid. He said there were no casualties. The rebels said they took Turkish soldiers captive.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, called on PKK fighters to lay down their arms or leave the country. He spoke in Irbil, the administrative capital of the autonomous Kurdish region that consists of three northern Iraqi provinces. The president of the region, Massoud Barzani, stood next to Talabani and said the Kurdish district did not want a fight but would respond if Turkey attacked.

In Turkey, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on national television, "Our anger, our hatred is great."

The Sadr City attacks, the U.S. military said, killed "an estimated 49 criminals" in three linked attacks during an intelligence-driven raid to capture the rogue Shiite kidnapper who was partially funded by Iran. The man was not identified by name.

U.S. troops returned fire under sustained attack from automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades from nearby buildings as they began raiding structures in the district, according to a statement. It said 33 militants were killed in the fire fight. Ground forces then called in helicopter air strikes, which killed six more militants.

As American soldiers left the fire zone, troops were hit by a roadside bomb and continued heavy fire and killed 10 more combatants.

"All total, coalition forces estimate that 49 criminals were killed in three separate engagements during this operation. Ground forces reported they were unaware of any innocent civilians being killed as a result of this operation," the military said in the updated statement.

An initial military statement e-mailed to The Associated Press said the raids targeted "criminals believed to be responsible for the kidnapping of coalition soldiers in November 2006 and May 2007." A later release, however, contained nothing about kidnapped soldiers and kidnappings on those dates have not been reported previously.

Iraqi police and hospital officials said at least 13 people were killed, including a woman and three children, and 52 were wounded during the 5 a.m. raid in the sprawling district.

Associated Press photos showed the bodies of two toddlers, one with a gouged face, swaddled in blankets on the floor of the morgue after relatives said they were killed when helicopter gunfire hit their house as they slept. Their shirts were pulled up, exposing their abdomens. A diaper showed above the waistband of the shorts of one of the boys.

Several houses, cars and shops, a bakery and a large generator, were damaged in the fighting, which witnesses said lasted two hours.

Victims' relatives gathered at Sadr City's Imam Ali hospital where the emergency room was overwhelmed with bloodied residents. The dead were placed in caskets covered by Iraqi flags.

A local resident who goes by the name Abu Fatmah said his neighbor's 14-year-old son, Saif Alwan, was killed while sleeping on the roof, wearing a white robe. Fatmah said many of the casualties were people sleeping on the roof to seek relief from the hot weather and lack of electricity.

"Saif was killed by an air strike and what is his guilt? Is he from the Mahdi Army? He is a poor student," Abu Fatmah said.

An uncle of 2-year-old Ali Hamid said the boy was killed and his parents seriously wounded when heavy gunfire from a helicopter pierced the wall and windows of their house as they slept indoors.

APTN video showed a U.S. helicopter flying over the area while black smoke rose into the sky.

Other footage showed three bloodied boys sitting on hospital tables and an elderly man being treated for a head wound. Mourners tied wooden coffins onto the tops of minivans with the plume of smoking rising in the background.

On Aug. 8, the U.S. military said 32 suspected militants were killed and 12 captured in an operation targeting a Sadr City ring that smuggled armor-piercing roadside bombs from Iran. Iraqi police and witnesses claimed nine civilians, including two women, were killed in that raid.

The sweeps into Sadr City have sent a strong message that U.S. forces plan no letup on suspected Shiite militia cells despite objections from the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is working for closer cooperation with Shiite heavyweight Iran.

An Iraqi military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said the government would ask the Americans for an explanation of Sunday's raid and stressed the need to avoid civilian deaths.

The government has issued mixed reactions to the raids and air strikes, particularly those that have targeted Sunni extremists.

U.S. troops backed by attack aircraft killed 19 suspected insurgents and 15 civilians, including nine children, in an operation Oct. 11 targeting al Qaeda in Iraq leaders northwest of Baghdad.

In that case, al-Maliki's government said the killings of the 15 women and children were a "sorrowful matter," but emphasized that civilian deaths are unavoidable in the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq.

By Associated Press Writer Steven R. Hurst