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IRAQ WRAPUP 4-Battles kill 13 in Sadr City, blockade eased

Reuters

* Thirteen gunmen killed in heavy battles

* Blockade on Sadr City eased

* Officials say situation stable

(Adds U.S. military spokesman, Basra raids)

By Wisam Mohammed

BAGHDAD, April 12 (Reuters) - U.S. and Iraqi forces killedat least 13 fighters in clashes and air strikes overnight inBaghdad's Sadr City, but eased a blockade on Saturday that hadtrapped residents in the battle zone slum for two weeks.

Gunfire was still audible and some roads remained closed,but cars were allowed in and out of some entrances to the slum,home to 2 million poor Shi'ites and power base of anti-Americancleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia.

Residents described the night's clashes as among the worstfighting there since Iraqi forces launched an offensive into thearea a week ago. A U.S. military statement said at least 13gunmen were killed in one overnight battle.

A U.S. convoy was struck by at least 10 roadside bombs whilemoving in to support Iraqi Army soldiers setting up a checkpointin the west of Sadr City, spokesman Major Mark Cheadle said.

U.S. forces fired at least one Hellfire missile from droneaircraft and two rounds from the main battle gun of an M1 tankagainst fighters who targeted them with roadside bombs, riflesand rocket-propelled grenades, the military statement added.

The Sadr City fighting, as well as fierce battles in thesouthern city of Basra between security forces and the MehdiArmy late last month, has thrust the Iraq war back onto thecentre stage of the U.S. presidential election campaign.

Police said 17 people were wounded in the overnight fightingin Sadr City. The slum's two hospitals said they received atleast 33 wounded.

Despite the fighting, the Iraqi government's Baghdadsecurity spokesman, Major-General Qassim Moussawi, said thesituation was stable and the overnight clashes would notinterfere with long awaited plans to lift the blockade.

"If more such clashes take place, we will deal with them byraiding the targets in an intelligent way," he said, adding thatsome roads were still shut to clear away bombs.

Cheadle said the decision to lift the blockade was "anindicator of the confidence in the battle-tested Iraqi securityforces in that area".

WARY RESIDENTS

The blockade imposed by U.S. and Iraqi troops has led toskyrocketing food prices and trapped residents in the denselypopulated slum under nightly bombardment. Residents said theywere relieved to get out but wary about the future.

"I went to university today and it felt to me like a newfresh day in my life after two weeks of being isolated from theworld," said law student Ahmed Kadhim.

But Nadeem Qasim, a civil servant in the water department,said he would not be optimistic "as long as the Iraqi armyvehicles are still there and U.S. planes hover over the city. Itmeans the problems and bombardment may resume".

As fighting raged overnight, loudspeakers on mosques blaredout speeches in support of the Mehdi Army.

"We will not allow the Americans to enter the city whateverhappens, if we lose our lives and our sons," they called out.

A Reuters correspondent who spent the night inside Sadr Citysaid U.S. helicopters and jets flew overhead before midnight andseveral of the aircraft could be seen firing missiles.

The sound of heavy gunfire erupted in several parts of theslum and fighters could be seen on the streets carryingrocket-propelled grenades and machineguns into battle.

Hundreds have died in clashes between Sadr's followers andU.S. and Iraqi forces since late last month, when Prime MinisterNuri al-Maliki launched a crackdown against the militia in thesouthern city of Basra.

The Iraqi Defence Ministry said it was launching raidsagainst militants in Basra's Qibla district, a Mehdi Armystronghold, on Saturday. A Reuters correspondent in the citysaid the raids appeared to have taken place without shooting.

A top aide to Sadr, related to the cleric by marriage, wasshot dead in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf on Friday.

Assassinations have been a frequent part of the powerstruggle between Shi'ite groups in southern Iraq. Police imposeda curfew in Najaf on Friday, but a Reuters reporter there saidit was lifted on Saturday and the city was calm. (Additional reporting by Khalid Al-Ansary, Aws Qusay and PeterGraff; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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