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Line between militias, civilians blurred in Iraq

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Line between militias, civilians blurred in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Judging by the wounds and death toll, the nighttime battles between radical Shi'ites and U.S. troops in Baghdad's Sadr City slum are fierce and the tactics dirty.

But determining whether the casualties are civilians or militiamen loyal to fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr may be impossible as fighting rages after dark in a district closed off by many American tanks.

Both sides are likely to try to win the media war, with Sadr's militants saying they were only protecting civilians and the Americans insisting they were fighting outlaws who threatened security.

The wounded in hospitals tell the same stories in Sadr City, where militiamen loyal to Sadr are challenging American soldiers late at night in battles.

Most say they were shot with no warning by U.S. troops while walking at night in the densely populated slum of about 2 million people.

Ali Saghir, whose arm was broken by a bullet, said he brought the man in the bed across from him to the hospital after he was shot. He was attending to another victim of the clashes when he himself was shot.

"I was suddenly shot in the arm and legs. I did nothing to provoke it. I was just helping someone," he said.

It is difficult to piece together what happened from hospital wards in Sadr City, where doctors said 50 civilians have been killed and 185 wounded since the fighting erupted Sunday. Eight U.S. soldiers have also been killed in the slum.


A doctor named Khaled in Sadr City who asked that his family name and hospital remain anonymous said he had been treating some shrapnel wounds but that many cases also involved precise, single bullet wounds to the legs or arms.

"These have to be snipers. They are very precise hits. Yesterday, we had two cases of bullets that entered just below the right hip and left from the inner thigh," he said.

"From the patient's accounts, the attacks took place at exactly the same location almost at the same time."

He suspects most of the wounded were civilians and about 20 to 30 percent were militiamen, but there was no way of telling, especially under his working conditions.

"Some things don't make sense, especially with the younger patients who are of fighting age. What were they doing walking at night during this fighting?" said Khaled.

"I really can't talk to my patients about who they are. I am scared. I feel as if I could be killed at any minute. It is similar to Saddam Hussein's system."

Officially, the hospital is run by the Ministry of Health. But men in black with Kalashnikovs strapped on their shoulders run the show.

One of them left his weapon downstairs and closely listened to Khaled, who soon switched to English to complain.

"If a patient dies, they threaten me and ask why I didn't save him. I am not a messenger of God. I am a doctor."

Across the room, the wife of a patient in critical condition said he was simply driving along a road when the Americans opened fire.

"Why did they do this?" she asked

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