BAGHDAD An agreement aimed at ending fighting in the Baghdad bastion of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr appeared on the verge of collapse on Tuesday after gunmen attacked U.S. troops.
The deal between the ruling Shi'ite alliance and Sadr's opposition movement in parliament to end fighting in the Sadr City slum district was formally signed on Monday.
But with the ink barely dry on the 16-point pact, clashes flared overnight and through Tuesday, raising questions over how much control the anti-American cleric has over some of the Mehdi Army militiamen who profess allegiance to him.
"It is clear that Sadr does not control all of the armed groups that make up the Mehdi Army," Kadhum al-Muqdadi, a professor at Baghdad University, told Reuters. "This fighting could last a long time."
A Mehdi Army statement read out in mosques in Sadr City late on Monday said the deal must be respected.
Nevertheless, the U.S. military said violence broke out between its troops and militants in Sadr City overnight, where seven weeks of clashes have already killed hundreds of people.
A Reuters witness said there had also been intense gun battles between Iraqi security forces and militiamen on Tuesday in Shula, a Sadr stronghold in northwestern Baghdad. Reuters TV footage showed five children running for cover as automatic gun fire echoed from between Sadr City's huddled brick houses.
Iraqi police said at least 11 people had been killed and 20 wounded in clashes in Sadr City since Monday night.
They did not give precise details but the U.S. military said it had killed at least three militiamen planting roadside bombs. U.S. troops were attacked numerous times with small arms fire.
The deal to end the fighting was announced on Saturday and welcomed by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. His crackdown in late March on militias sparked fierce resistance from Shi'ite gunmen, especially the Mehdi Army.
One Mehdi Army commander called Abu Ammar said his men would not recognise the truce unless U.S. and Iraqi forces ended what he called attacks on militiamen.
"If this truce is just a game, our guns are ready," he said.
Lieutenant-Colonel Steven Stover, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, said troops were only targeting militants launching attacks or planting bombs.
"We're not looking for a fight," Stover said. "They (the militants) are obviously not listening to any agreement."
SADR AIDE URGES PATIENCE
A senior political aide to Sadr urged patience with the truce, saying it might take time to filter down.
"Ceasefires cannot always be implemented immediately. Violations will happen in the first few days. Some armed groups may not be aware of it," Luwaa Sumaisem told reporters in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, where Sadr has a major office.
The U.S. military blames much of the violence on rogue elements of Sadr's militia it says get weapons, money and training from Shi'ite neighbour Iran, especially modern rockets that have been fired at the Green Zone government compound in Baghdad.
Tehran denies the accusations.
A U.S. military official said a surface-to-air missile was fired from eastern Baghdad at a U.S. aircraft on Saturday evening. The missile exploded harmlessly, the official said.
He did not say what type of aircraft was attacked, but the New York Times said it was a U.S. Apache attack helicopter.
Maliki says operations against militias are intended to impose law and order. Sadrist officials have accused him of trying to sideline the cleric's popular mass movement before provincial elections in October.
The movement, which boycotted the last local elections in 2005, is expected to do well at the expense of other Shi'ite parties supporting Maliki, especially in the Shi'ite south.
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami and Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad and Khaled Farhan in Najaf, Writing by Tim Cocks, Editing by Dean Yates and Giles Elgood)