KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Friday it had killed around 17 militia fighters in clashes in Iraq’s holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala, but hospital and police sources said some civilians were among the dead.
The clashes broke out at about dawn when U.S. Special Forces and Iraqi soldiers entered Kerbala, 110 km (70 miles) southwest of Baghdad, in search of a Mehdi Army commander accused of heading an assassination cell.
The Mehdi Army is the feared militia of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that the U.S. military says is fuelling Iraq’s cycle of sectarian violence.
The military said in a statement that U.S. and Iraqi forces came under fire, including from machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades, as they prepared to withdraw after capturing the wanted Mehdi Army commander and two others.
The troops responded, killing five suspected insurgents. A U.S. helicopter, which was called in to assist the ground forces, also came under fire.
“U.S. Special Forces called in precision aerial fires that resulted in approximately a dozen insurgents killed,” the U.S. military statement said, adding that there were no civilians in the area at the time.
However, hospital and police sources said civilians were among the dead and that 25 people were wounded in the fighting.
Reuters pictures showed fighters dressed in black, traditionally the uniform of Mehdi Army fighters, and brandishing AK-47 assault rifles as they stood in the back of a truck beside coffins being taken for burial.
Other pictures showed coffins being held aloft by civilians and Mehdi Army fighters, and a teenage boy lying wounded on a mattress. Walls in several streets were pockmarked by bullet holes, and several cars had shattered windscreens.
The U.S. military accused the detained Mehdi Army commander of organizing roadside bomb attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces and of killing Iraqi civilians.
U.S. soldiers generally stay out of Kerbala, home to one of the holiest Shi’ite shrines in Iraq. Kerbala is one of Iraq’s best protected cities because of its holy status, although there have been several large bomb attacks in the city this year.
Insurgents posing as Americans drove into a government compound in Kerbala in January, killing one U.S. soldier and kidnapping four others who were later found dead.