BAGHDAD - American soldiers raided a neighborhood in the southern Iraqi city of Kut early yesterday morning, killing 11 members of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the U.S. military said.

Leaders of the Sadr movement, which has abided by a cease-fire for several months, condemned the U.S. operation.

Witnesses said explosions, thumping helicopters and bursts of automatic-weapons fire echoed through the Kut neighborhood of Al Jameea for at least three hours as U.S. forces fought Mahdi militiamen. At least four people were wounded during the clash, the police said.

"The American helicopters shelled our neighborhood for three hours," said Jameel Muhammad, 27, a construction worker. "Dead bodies were scattered here and there. Houses and cars were set on fire, and people were scared and running all over the place."

A shop owner, Hassan Jassim, said that his sister-in-law had been wounded in the fighting and that he had seen three bodies in the street near his house.

"American helicopters fired on our houses," he said.

In a statement, the U.S. military said GIs had been searching for a person responsible for attacks against U.S. forces when they were fired upon with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

"Responding in self-defense, coalition forces returned fire and called for supporting aircraft to engage," the statement said.

The militant Sadr movement is one of several leading Shiite political groups in the government and has one of the largest paramilitary forces.

The Mahdi Army, which has a strong presence in Iraq's security forces, has been linked to the deaths of thousands of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, Diyala, Basra and other provinces. In 2004, the militia attacked American and British forces, and engaged in major battles in the holy city of Najaf.

Such attacks have sharply decreased in recent months. *