Baghdad Fighting Flares Despite Sadr's Truce

Skirmishes and rocket fire continue in Sadr City. A senior commander of Muqtada al Sadr's Mehdi Army militia says more of his fighters are ignoring Sadr's eight-month-old call for a cease-fire.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

April has been a deadly month in Iraq. More American service members died in Iraq this month than in any of the past seven months.

Today in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood there was more fighting. The U.S. military says it's up against criminals or militants who've broken away from the militia of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, more and more of Sadr's regular fighters are now battling American and Iraqi forces.

TOM BOWMAN: The violence in Sadr City continues to escalate. Insurgents are targeting American patrols. That's one reason why April has been the deadliest month for U.S. forces since September.

Now a senior Mehdi Army commander tells NPR he is maintaining Sadr's eight-month-long ceasefire, but an increasing number of his fighters, about 600 in Sadr City, are fighting alongside the special groups.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) I didn't order them, but the situation therein is forcing them to fight. The order we received from Sayid Sadr is to defend ourselves. If you get attacked, defend yourself.

BOWMAN: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took a defiant tone today against those battling government forces.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through translator) the operation continues, and there's no deal with Muqtada al-Sadr or anyone else. What's going to happen with Sadr City, its operations are getting better and better, until we pull out all the criminals and the gangs that detain people in Sadr City. You will have many in detention.

BOWMAN: The American forces are being drawn into a political power play that is increasingly being settled with a barrel of a gun, or a tank, or a rocket.

Major General KEVIN BERGNER (U.S. Army): This is focused on criminal groups.

BOWMAN: Major General Kevin Bergner is an American military spokesman.

Maj. Gen. BERGNER: Those who are using the force of arms outside the government of Iraq, and they are endangering not only those who live in Sadr City but they're endangering innocent Iraqis.

BOWMAN: More than 70 Iraqis have been killed in the fighting over the past several days, including a number of women and children. The Mehdi Army commander says the death toll will likely grow in Sadr City unless U.S. and Iraqi forces withdraw.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Baghdad.

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