BAGHDAD – With U.S. attack helicopters buzzing overhead, gunmen and Iraqi security forces clashed Sunday in a Sunni area in central Baghdad, and police said at least two people were killed in fighting in the neighborhood's narrow streets and alleys.
Roadside bombings, meanwhile, killed five U.S. soldiers, including four in a single strike in a volatile province northeast of the capital.
The fighting in Baghdad started about 1:30 p.m. when gunmen attacked Iraqi army positions in the Fadhil neighborhood, on the east side of the Tigris River, police said.
The U.S. military said it had no immediate reports about the fighting in Baghdad, but later Sunday announced that four Americans had been killed when a roadside bomb hit their patrol in Diyala province. A roadside bomb also killed a U.S. soldier and wounded two others during a route clearance mission in northwestern Baghdad.
An Iraqi army colonel from the brigade in charge of the Baghdad neighborhood where the fighting took place said the gunmen were firing at army checkpoints and patrols from rooftops and the soldiers returned fire, calling for U.S. assistance when the fighting became fierce. He said the situation had 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.
Iraqi police said two civilians were killed and two policemen and two civilians were wounded.
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.
The clashes broke out a day after at least 74 people were killed or found dead in Iraq — 47 in suicide bombings — one of the deadliest days since a U.S.-Iraqi security sweep began in Baghdad on Feb. 14.
Suspected Shiite militants attacked a Sunni mosque on Sunday in apparent retaliation for one of those attacks — a suicide truck bombing against a Shiite mosque that killed 11 people in Haswa, 30 miles south of Baghdad. The explosion on Sunday blew a hole in the roof of the mosque's minaret but caused no injuries.
On March 14, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William C. Caldwell expressed optimism about the Baghdad security plan, but urged patience and cautioned that "high-profile" car bombings, which rose to a high of 77 in February, could "start the whole cycle of violence again."
The number of execution-style killings in the capital has declined since the operation started on Feb. 14 — a development officials say is due to an agreement keeping Shiite militias off the street, and Sunday's attack in Haswa highlighted concerns that militia factions are angry about being sidelined while the bombings continue.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State in Iraq, an insurgent umbrella group that includes al-Qaida in Iraq, purportedly claimed responsibility for three suicide bombings Saturday near the Anbar province city of Qaim, near the Syrian border, saying in an Internet statement that 45 policemen were killed and 48 were wounded.
The statement could not be independently verified, and police said only six people had been killed, including five policemen, and 19 other people wounded.
One of the attackers hit a checkpoint, while another targeted a police station but was forced to detonate his explosives beforehand after guards opened fire on him, Col. Tariq Yousif al-Dulaimi said, adding that all the casualties were from those two explosions.
A third bombing also occurred about 100 yards away from an Iraqi-staffed checkpoint, but only the attacker was killed, he said.
The deadliest attack on Saturday destroyed a police station in Baghdad, killing 20 people — half policemen and several others inmates at a jail in the two-story building. The bomber bypassed tight security to get within 25 yards of the station by blending in with other trucks coming and going as part of a construction project, detonating his explosives after reaching the main gate, police said.
A suicide bomber also killed 10 people in a market area in Tal Afar, northwest of Baghdad.
The bombings came on the heels of other high-profile attacks last week, including a suicide bombing on Friday that wounded Iraq's Sunni deputy prime minister and killed nine other people and a rocket strike that landed near a news conference being held by the U.N. secretary-general in Baghdad.
An aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the deputy prime minister, Salam al-Zubaie, had been wounded by shrapnel in his face, stomach and chest but his condition was improving. The Islamic State in Iraq also claimed responsibility for that attack.
"The doctors say that his situation will improve within the two coming days to the degree that he will be able to speak," the aide said, declining to be identified because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the situation.
The aide also said al-Zubaie was being kept under tight security in the U.S.-run hospital in the heavily fortified Green Zone, and "even his relatives are not allowed to enter the hospital."
The U.S. military, meanwhile, announced that troops had found 470 anti-tank mines Saturday in the Shiite militia Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City after getting a tip from an Iraqi citizen.
Another large weapons cache with roadside bomb-making material was found and 31 suspected insurgents were detained Friday in Diyarah 30 miles south of Baghdad, the military said in a separate statement.