BAGHDAD – A rocket slammed into Baghdad's city hall and another hit a downtown park Tuesday as more frightened civilians fled a Shiite militia stronghold where U.S.-led forces are locked in fierce street battles.
The American push in the Sadr City district — launched after an Iraqi government crackdown on armed Shiite groups began in late March — is trying to weaken the militia grip in a key corner of Baghdad and disrupt rocket and mortar strikes on the U.S.-protected Green Zone.
But fresh salvos of rockets from militants arced over the city, wounding at least 16 people and drawing U.S. retaliation that escalated civilian panic and flight to safer areas.
One rocket — apparently aimed at the Green Zone — blasted the nearby city hall. Three 122 mm rockets hit parts of central Baghdad, including destroying some playground equipment in a park. An Iraqi police station was damaged by a rocket that failed to detonate, the U.S. military said.
U.S. forcing used airstrikes and tank fire against suspected militia positions following a rocket attack late Monday in Sadr City, the military said. At least six people were killed.
An attack aircraft later fired two Hellfire missiles and killed three militants who were planting a roadside bomb in the Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad on Tuesday, the military added.
At least four civilians were killed in the clashes, hospital officials said.
The latest battles came as the Pentagon announced plans to cut U.S. troop strength by about 3,500 toward its goal of withdrawing the bulk of its "surge" forces sent last year into Baghdad and surrounding areas.
More families, meanwhile, sought refuge in neighborhoods away from the fighting, which showed no sign of easing.
A senior member of the municipal council in Sadr City estimated 8,000 families had fled the teeming slum since the battles began six weeks ago. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of security reasons. The figure could not be independently verified.
Mulkiya Methour, a woman wearing a black head-to-toe chador, said many families had left Sadr City.
"They fled bombardment. Their houses were destroyed and sewage floated into their homes," Methour told AP Television News outside Sadr City — the stronghold for the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
For Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, the crackdown is a test of his determination to exert control. He has vowed to disarm all militants even as he faces accusations from al-Sadr's supporters of committing crimes against his own people.
The crackdown also has sharpened tensions between the United States and Iran. Washington accuses Iran of helping train and arm some Shiite factions in Iraq. Tehran denies the charges.
Hassan al-Rubaie, a Sadrist lawmaker, suspended his seat in parliament to protest the fighting in Sadr City. He said he held the government of al-Maliki responsible for the fighting. Al-Sadr's followers control 30 of the 275 parliament seats.
In the northern city of Mosul, one U.S. soldier was killed in an attack by Sunni insurgents on an American patrol, the military said.
The U.S. military announced plans to withdraw 3,500 American soldiers from the country as part of the Pentagon's overall reduction in troop strength following last year's "surge."
Washington plans to trim forces in Iraq to about 140,000 soldiers by the summer — from a peak of about 170,000 in October, at the height of the troop buildup in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
The departing soldiers, part of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, will redeploy to Fort Benning, Ga., the military said.
The U.S. sent some 30,000 additional soldiers and Marines into Iraq last year to help stem growing violence. The troop increase, a truce by a key Shiite Muslim militia and the rise of Sunni fighters who allied with the U.S. in the battle against Al Qaeda in Iraq were credited with a sharp decrease in bloodshed during the last 10 months.