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20 Killed, 52 Wounded in Sadr City Clashes

Iraqi troops backed by U.S. forces battled Shiite fighters in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood in clashes that killed 20 people and wounded more than 50 despite a cease-fire between the government and the militia, officials said Sunday.

To the north, police said gunmen seized 42 students off a bus near the city of Mosul — Al Qaeda's last major urban stronghold — but later released them unharmed.

The U.S. military said that fighting broke out overnight in Sadr City, a stronghold of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militants. Officials at two local hospitals said 20 people were killed and 52 wounded. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, did not say whether the casualties were civilians or fighters. U.S. and Iraqi forces released no information about the casualties.

A police officer said that a U.S. Stryker armored personnel carrier was damaged in the fighting, which continued with sporadic exchanges of fire through Sunday morning.

Two armored Humvee vehicles and two trucks belonging to the Iraqi army were also destroyed, said the officer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The U.S. military said it had no information about a Stryker being damaged.

An Iraqi government offensive against the Mahdi army in the southern city of Basra ground to a halt last week amid fierce resistance. Al-Sadr issued a cease-fire order and the government agreed to halt raids against his followers.

Although scattered clashes continued between his fighters and Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi government relaxed security measures Saturday around the Mahdi Army strongholds of Sadr City and the Shula neighborhood.

In an effort to ease conditions for Sadr City's 2.5 million residents, the government has allowed trucks carrying maintenance teams, food, oil products and ambulances into the area.

A vehicle ban remains in effect as part of a curfew imposed on Baghdad after fighting broke out between government forces and Shiite militants March 25. The curfew has been lifted in the rest of Baghdad.

Several rockets or mortar rounds exploded inside the U.S.-controlled Green Zone on Sunday and adding that four civilians were injured outside the area by rounds that fell short, police said. The U.S. military confirmed the shelling but provided no details.

In the north, Brig. Gen. Khalid Abdul-Sattar said the students were waylaid about 20 miles south of Mosul on the main highway to Baghdad. Three other students on a second bus were wounded when gunmen opened fire as the driver managed to speed away, he said.

The hijacked bus was then driven onto a farm road, where all the students were released after the gunmen made sure they were not members of the security forces, Abdul-Sattar said.

The two top American officials in Iraq — Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker — are to brief Congress on Tuesday on the situation in Iraq and prospects for further reductions in the U.S. troop presence.

Britain this month suspended plans to remove 1,500 soldiers from its 4,000-member force in southern Iraq after fighting broke out in Basra between Iraqi troops and Shiite militia and spread quickly to Baghdad and other cities.

Also Sunday, hundreds of mourners gathered in the capital's Karradah district for the funeral of Father Youssef Adel, an Assyrian Orthodox priest slain the day before at his home.

One of the mourners, Midhat Faez, said the assassination was aimed at provoking conflict between Muslims and the tiny Christian community.

"As Christians, we are terrified and our numbers are gradually diminishing," Faez said.