BAGHDAD - American jets and helicopters bombed Baghdad's largest Shiite slum on Wednesday, in a deadly strike targeting Iranian-backed militia, as thousands of pilgrims thronged the streets of the city.
The US military said 30 "terrorists" were killed in the overnight strike on Sadr City, but families complained that women and children were among the dead, and angry mourners gathered to bury simple wooden caskets.
Helicopters and war planes were called in as Iraqi and US ground troops arrested 12 members of a cell that American commanders believe brought weapons and explosives from Iran, and sent militants to Iran for training.
"During the course of the operation, the assault force and the overhead aerial support observed a vehicle and large group of armed men on foot attempting an assault on the ground forces," the military said.
"Responding appropriately to the threat of the organised terrorist force, close air support was called and engaged the terrorist vehicle and organised terrorist force, killing an estimated 30 terrorists," the statement added.
Families said 11 people were killed in the US strike in the teeming slum, a stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, including three children and four women. At least one house and a truck were heavily damaged.
The military said the main target of the raid acted as a proxy between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force but it was unclear whether the individual was killed or captured during the campaign.
It said all those killed -- another two gunmen were shot dead on the ground -- or captured were thought to belong to a rogue militia cell known for bringing among other things, explosively formed penetrators or EFPs, from Iran.
EFPs fire a ball of molten metal capable of destroying heavily armoured vehicles, and have been responsible for hundreds of American deaths in Iraq.
The renewed US accusations of Iranian interference -- which are routinely denied by Tehran -- came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki arrived in Tehran for talks on ways to improve security in the country.
Pressing the diplomatic agenda elsewhere on ending Iraq's vicious sectarian conflict, representatives of its neighbours and the global community, including the United States and arch-foe Iran, were also meeting in Damascus.
Hundreds of thousands of Shiites converged on the war-torn capital, marching through the streets under stringent security and punishing heat to commemorate the death of a revered imam on Thursday.
Iraq banned all vehicle traffic in the capital to guard against the vicious car bombings that routinely target Shiite crowds and have spread carnage at previous religious events, as security forces manned checkpoints.
Two years ago, Shiites marching in memory of Imam Musa Kadhim were gripped by panic after mortar shells were fired at the mosque housing his tomb, amid rumours of suicide bombers in a crowd crossing a bridge over the river Tigris.
At least 965 people -- many of them women and children -- were trampled to death in a stampede or drowned after jumping into the river, in the bloodiest tragedy of Iraq's sectarian conflict, one still raw in the minds of many.
Set to last three days, the curfew cloaked the sweltering streets of Baghdad in eery calm while men, women dressed from head to toe in black, and children walked past army armoured cars and police jeeps to Kadhim's tomb.
"Despite the security situation and the probable danger, this is a special occasion for us that we can't miss and one of the most important Shiite events," said Haidar Abdul Hussein, 33, from the neighbourhood of Karrada.
Some 85,000 Iraqi and US troops have deployed in Baghdad since February to flush out Sunni extremists and Shiite militias, but the number of civilians killed has remained high and rose last month to pre-surge levels.
Any major attack at this year's commemoration would be a further blow for Maliki's shrinking government, now boycotted by 17 ministers from a spectrum of Shiite, Sunni and non-sectarian parties.
Civilians are forbidden to carry weapons and Iraqi security forces tightly controlled the route that pilgrims will follow on foot to the imam's mausoleum in the Kadhimiyah district.
Musa Kadhim was the seventh of the 12 Shiite imams and died in Baghdad in 799 after he was poisoned in prison. Every year tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims mark his passing by visiting his tomb in Kadhimiyah.
Copyright © AFP 2007