RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Militants in Baghdad took advantage of a sandstorm yesterday to launch attacks against Iraqi military checkpoints. The US military says those attacks are continuing today. Also targeted today, the Green Zone, which houses the US embassy. US military is reporting that American and Iraqi troops have killed over three dozen militants in the fighting. NPR's Eric Westervelt is following this story in Baghdad, and joins us now. And Eric, I gather US aircraft were grounded during that sandstorm. And that - what? Apparently was an opportunity for militants to launch these attacks?
ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, that's right. It appears Shiite militants took advantage of this sandstorm and dust storm that really swept in quickly Sunday, Renee, all across Baghdad. And the US military reports there were several different firefights in and around Sadr City and east Baghdad. And in at least two separate fights, American soldiers used their Abrams tanks and fired these larger, 120-millimeter tank rounds to try to repel the attackers, who were striking at US and Iraqi forces with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and small arms fire. In the biggest firefight, the military says they killed 22 militants when they were ambushed by these militants and where they tried to overrun a joint Iraqi-US military checkpoint. Again, in that fight, the Americans say they used their tanks and machine guns to defend the position.
MONTAGNE: And what about the attacks on the Green Zone?
WESTERVELT: Well, US military officials confirmed several rockets - they wouldn't say exactly how many - but several rockets hit the Green Zone yesterday during this dust storm. There were no serious injuries, they say. But most of the rockets were these 107 millimeter ones, the ones they've been firing at the Green Zone for weeks, Renee. But a senior military official tells us the barrage also included larger rockets, including these 240 millimeter rockets. These are bigger rockets. The 240 typically has a range of some 20 to 25 miles. One of these larger rockets, a military official tells us, struck the Polish embassy compound in the Green Zone over the weekend. So these are clearly something of a concern for US and Iraqi forces. They've pushed into southern Sadr City to try to stop the rocket fire, these 107 millimeter ones, and they've had some success. But it appears militants, what the US refers to as these special groups, are indeed firing longer range rockets and apparently firing them from different areas, from outside of Sadr City.
MONTAGNE: Right. Well, now, Sadr City, that means that these militants, I presume, are Shiite militants.
WESTERVELT: That's right. And many they're some faction of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. The US repeatedly refers them as either Iranian-trained special groups or criminals and thugs. But the fact is, when you Mahdi Army members and commanders on the ground there by cell phone, you can - they say we're fighting - you know, we're the ones doing the fighting. These aren't, quote, "criminals."
MONTAGNE: Although the leader, powerful Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, he's maintained a ceasefire - officially, at least.
WESTERVELT: Well, that's correct. And these attacks over the weekend appear to defy that. He praised his fighters on Friday for being patient and not attacking Iraqi troops. And there were some attacks on Iraqi troops over the weekend. But he's also been pretty clear in saying we think attacks on US forces are legitimate. He said over the weekend, when we meant open war against the invader, we meant - when we meant open war, we meant open war against the invader. And so, to many, they believe that was a sign that - to Sadr's followers that's it's free range on American troops. They can fire at them.
MONTAGNE: Eric, thanks very much.
WESTERVELT: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Eric Westervelt, speaking to us from Baghdad.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.