BAGHDAD, Iraq – As U.S. forces again battled insurgents loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, U.S. military deaths in the Iraq campaign passed 1,000 on Tuesday, according to an Associated Press tally.
The grim milestone was surpassed after a spike in fighting that has killed 14 U.S. service members in the past two days.
Two soldiers died in fighting Tuesday with militiamen loyal to al-Sadr in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City in clashes that killed at least 36 people and wounded 203 others, U.S. and Iraqi authorities said.
Five other Americans died Tuesday in separate attacks, most of them in the Baghdad area, bringing the U.S. death toll from the past two days to 14.
Since the war began in March of last year, 998 U.S. troops and three civilian contractors have been killed while working for the Defense Department. The tally was compiled by the AP based on Defense Department records, its own reporting from Iraq and reports from soldiers? families. The total includes deaths from hostile and non-hostile causes.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted earlier in the day that U.S. forces were soon ?likely to suffer the 1,000th casualty at the hands of terrorists and extremists in Iraq.?
He tried to put that in context. ?Combined with U.S. losses in other theaters in the global war on terror, we have lost well more than 1,000 already,? he said, adding that the ?civilized world? passed that mark long ago, pointing to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and attacks elsewhere.
The Bush administration has long linked the Iraq conflict to the war on terrorism. The Sept. 11 Commission concluded that Iraq and al-Qaida did not have a ?collaborative relationship? before the 2001 attacks, and some have questioned to what extent foreign terror groups are involved in the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.
The past two days have been particularly bloody for U.S. forces in Iraq. Deaths included seven Marines slain by a suicide bombing north of Fallujah. A group linked to Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attack in a Web statement Tuesday.
In another part of the capital, a roadside bomb Tuesday targeted the Baghdad governor?s convoy, killing two people but leaving him uninjured, the Interior Ministry said. Three of Gov. Ali al-Haidri?s bodyguards were also hurt.
Tanks, warplanes used
In the Sadr City neighborhood, U.S. tanks moved in and armored personnel carriers and Bradley fighting vehicles were deployed at key intersections. Ambulances with sirens wailing rushed the wounded to hospitals as plumes of black smoke rose over the mainly Shiite neighborhood.
Warplanes flew over the sprawling neighborhood of more than 2 million, firing flares to avoid being hit by anti-aircraft missiles.
U.S. Army Capt. Brian O?Malley said the fighting erupted when militants attacked U.S. forces carrying out routine patrols, killing one American.
Sheik Raed al-Kadhimi, a spokesman for al-Sadr in Baghdad, blamed what he called intrusive U.S. incursions into Sadr City and attempts to arrest al-Sadr’s followers. ?Our fighters have no choice but to return fire and to face the U.S. forces and helicopters pounding our houses,? al-Kadhimi said in a statement.
In the slum?s roadways, small groups of al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia fighters used hammers to dig up the asphalt to plant explosives. Bands of fighters in civilian clothes — most of them in their teens and early 20s — wielded rocket-propelled grenades and trotted toward the clashes, children running in their wake.
Other fighters, rifles in hand, gathered on street corners. Roads leading to the area were blocked by the militiamen using rocks and tires. By early afternoon, most stores in the neighborhood were shut in anticipation of more combat.
Peace talks falter
The renewed fighting came after a period of calm when al-Sadr called on his followers last week to observe a cease-fire and announced that he was going into politics.
But aides to al-Sadr later said the peace talks in Sadr City between the cleric?s representatives and interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi?s government had stalled, with the government refusing militants? demands for U.S. troops to keep out of the troubled district.
U.S. commanders have said they want to carry out an assault to clear al-Sadr’s fighters from the district, particularly its northern part, where the militiamen are said to have dug in.
Al-Sadr led a three-week uprising in the holy city of Najaf that ended 10 days ago with a peace deal that allowed his Mahdi militia fighters to walk away with their guns. The combat in Najaf left hundreds of people dead and devastated much of the city.
Many Mahdi militiamen are believed to have returned to their stronghold in Sadr City.
Suicide attack kills 7 U.S. Marines
Tuesday?s violence came a day after a suicide attack on a military convoy outside Fallujah killed seven U.S. Marines and three Iraqi soldiers, U.S. military officials said. It was the deadliest day for U.S. forces in four months.
Tawhid and Jihad, a group linked to al-Zarqawi, posted a statement on a Web site Tuesday claiming responsibility for the attack.
The bombing underscored the challenges U.S. commanders face in securing Fallujah and surrounding Anbar province, the heartland of a Sunni Muslim insurgency bent on driving coalition forces from the country.
U.S. forces have not patrolled in Fallujah since a three-week siege of the city in April that was aimed at rooting out militiaman. As a result, insurgents have strengthened their hold on the city, using it as a base to make car bombs and launch attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces.
The military said warplanes launched air strikes Tuesday, as tanks fired into the insurgent stronghold.