Iraq was steeped in blood as a fledgling truce in a Baghdad rebel bastion was shattered by fresh fighting that officials said left 40 killed and scores wounded, while the US death count neared the 1,000 mark.
Fierce clashes were raging in Sadr City, an AFP correspondent said, reporting that smoke was rising from some areas of the over-populated Baghdad slum while US fighter jets were flying overhead.
The health ministry said 40 Iraqis were killed and more than 270 wounded in overnight clashes between US forces and combatants loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr.
Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr cheer and shout pro-Sadr slogans as U.S. armored vehicles withdraw after hours of fighting in Sadr City, Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday Sept. 7, 2004. U.S. forces battled al-Sadr's supporters in the Baghdad slum on Tuesday, killing at least 34 people, including one American
Sadr Lieutenant Sheikh Naim al-Qaabi said 15 of his movement's Mehdi Army fighters were killed and 62 wounded.
"Last night was the most intense shelling of Sadr City since the Americans arrived in Iraq," he said, adding heavy aircraft fire lasted from 11:00 pm (1900 GMT) to 4:00 am.
US army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel James Hutton reported several bomb and small arms attacks on US forces in Sadr City overnight and said one US soldier was killed in an ambush there on Tuesday.
US tanks rumbled around the neighbourhood and automatic fire echoed on Sadr City's main al-Shuhada Street. Four US military vehicles blocked off al-Hay square, home to Sadr's main office.
Tuesday's clashes marked the deadliest combat in the Baghdad neighbourhood since April.
The US military had also reported the deaths of three other troops in separate attacks in the Baghdad area on Monday, bringing the total number of soldiers killed since the March 2003 invasion to 992.
The fresh violence came after the US military suffered its worst single human loss in months Monday, when a car bomb ripped through a joint convoy, killing seven marines and three Iraqi national guards near Fallujah.
The new eruption of violence brought an abrupt end to a period of relative calm which had followed Sadr's call last week for a ceasefire and pledge to join the political arena.
His surprise announcement came after the end of the weeks-long standoff between US troops and his Mehdi Army around the Imam Ali shrine in the holy Shiite of Najaf.
Yet negotiations to secure an agreement guaranteeing an end to violence in Sadr collapsed last week.
Sadr's office said the Iraqi government had refused their request that US troops should only enter the two-million-strong slum for reconstruction purposes and also rejected their demand for compensation.
The US military announced they had set up collection points across Sadr City for fighters to turn in their heavy weaponry but the call remained unheeded in the absence of a formal agreement.
The new flare-up left the Iraqi government in a deepening crisis, following the embarrassment over the false announcement that Saddam's fugitive deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri had been arrested.
The capture would have been the highest-profile since Saddam Hussein himself was netted in December 2003 but officials sheepishly retracted their claim Monday after a day-long confusion.
Ibrahim is the most wanted member of the former regime still at large but an interior ministry spokesman said Monday that Iraqi forces had detained a man who resembled him.
As the capital was engulfed in a fresh wave of violence, Baghdad governor Ali al-Haidri narrowly escaped an assassination attempt, officials said.
The governor himself told the Al-Arabiya news channel that two civilians were killed in the roadside bomb attack, although there was no immediate confirmation from hospital sources.
In further unrest, the 19-year-old son of the governor for the northern Iraqi province of Niniveh which includes the city of Mosul was assassinated by unknown attackers, medical and police sources said.
A mortar attack on the provincial government building killed a policeman and wounded 18 people last week. The governor's predecessor was assassinated in July.
As a recent spate of attacks on the country's oil and gas infrastructure further crippled the ailing Iraqi economy, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari continued a tour of the region to muster support for his embattled government.
After talks in Jordan, Zebari was due to visit Yemen, Sudan and Egypt, where he will attend an extraordinary meeting of the 22-member of the Arab League later this month.
© Copyright 2004 AFP