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US troops raided a Shiite area of Baghdad, capturing two militants believed linked to Iran and sparking a battle that Iraqi officials said killed 19 people. Two employees of the Reuters news agency were among the dead.
Angry residents of the Amin district - many of them Shiites who fled to Baghdad from Baqouba, where US troops are waging an offensive against insurgents - accused US helicopters of striking buildings during the fight with gunmen and killing civilians Thursday. The US military said Friday that nine insurgents and two civilians - the Reuters personnel - were killed.
Iraqi police and hospital officials who put the toll at 19 said the dead included at least one woman and two children, and some of the men slain appeared to have been armed and firing on the Americans.
AP Television News footage showed buildings riddled with holes from heavy machine gun and rocket fire, and a minibus with its front seat blasted away.
US forces have been waging an intensified security crackdown against Shiite and Sunni militants in and around Baghdad for nearly a month, as the Iraqi government struggles to make political progress. Disputes among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders have severely weakened Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki even as the United States presses him to enact reforms.
One of Iraq's most powerful Shiite politicians, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, underlined his support of al-Maliki in comments to The Associated Press on Thursday. Al-Hakim said his party - the biggest in parliament - was working with al-Maliki on a government reshuffle that would strengthen the prime minister.
The violence in the Amin district in eastern Baghdad began with a pre-dawn raid by US forces, who captured two militants involved in kidnappings and planting roadside bombs against American and Iraqi troops, the military said in a statement. Militants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the troops, hitting a nearby building, according to the military.
The militants belonged to Iranian-backed "special groups" linked to the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to anti-US Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the military said. The US has accused Iran's Revolutionary Guards of organizing and arming a network of the special groups to carry out attacks on US and Iraqi forces as well as kidnappings.
After the initial raid, US troops surrounded the neighborhood for several hours, announcing with loudspeakers to residents that they were seeking militants and that they should stay inside, said an Iraqi police official who was at the scene.
As the Americans withdrew about 11 a.m., they came under fire, the official said. That prompted troops to move back into the district, assaulting several buildings. A US attack helicopter struck targets on the ground, he said.
The result was a battle with militants that included mortars and rockets, the official said. Several explosions hit residential buildings, killing eight people, including a woman and two children, said the official and another police officer involved in counting the casualties. They could not say whether the blasts came from the helicopter or from militants.
Eleven others - mostly men, including some suspected gunmen - were killed on the street near buildings, shops and a Shiite religious building, the police officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to give information to reporters.
Officials from the three hospitals where the victims were taken put the toll at 19 dead and 20 wounded. Among the dead were an Iraqi photographer for Reuters, Namir Noor-Eldeen, 22, and his driver Saeed Chmagh, 40, the London-based news agency said. "The cause of their deaths was unclear, although witnesses spoke of an explosion in the area," Reuters reported. "Iraqi police said either a US airstrike or a mortar attack had occurred."
The US military on Friday said in a statement that the fighting took place when troops on a raid came under attack from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, prompting the American forces to return fire and call in aviation reinforcement. Thirteen insurgents were detained, it said.
"There is no question that Coalition Forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force," said Lt. Col Scott Bleichwehl, a military spokesman.
Residents blamed the Americans for the destruction.
"We are refugees, we were displaced from our homes by militant attacks," said one woman, who like others had come to the neighborhood from Baqouba. "And now we have to deal with attacks from Americans."
"They hit the building and destroyed it completely. My mother is dead, my sister is dead. I don't know where my father is," said the woman, who refused to identify herself, speaking in front of a residential building where the ground floor of shops was gutted.
U.S. strikes in Shiite districts are highly sensitive for al-Maliki, whose bedrock support is from the majority Shiite community. Shiites have complained of casualties in US raids launched in retaliation for the frequent mortar attacks on Baghdad's government district, the Green Zone. Those mortar attacks are often blamed on the Mahdi Army. The US military says it tries to avoid civilian casualties but that militants hide in populated areas.
Earlier this month, al-Maliki scolded the U.S. for a raid in the Baghdad Shiite stronghold of Sadr City. But he has not moved to rein in American operations as he has in the past - having promised Washington to allow troops to go after both Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents.
In southern Iraq, clashes erupted between Shiite militants and the Iraqi army, killing a soldier and a civilian in the city of Diwaniyah, police said. The US military said Thursday that American-Iraqi sweeps in the city over the previous two days had killed eight suspected insurgents.
A suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt by a wedding party in Tal Afar, a city 260 miles (420 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad that has seen frequent attacks by Sunni insurgents. A police officer in Tal Afar said five people were killed and five wounded, though the bride and groom escaped injury. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the press.