Fed-up Iraqi civilians wage gunbattle against insurgents

`We attacked them before they attacked us,' says one man

3 gunmen killed

March 23, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Ordinary Iraqis rarely strike back at the insurgents who terrorize their country. But just before noon yesterday, a carpenter named Dhia saw a group of masked gunmen with grenades coming toward his shop and decided he had had enough.

As the gunmen emerged from their cars, Dhia, 35, and his young relatives shouldered their own AK-47s and opened fire, police and witnesses said. In the fierce gunbattle that followed, three of the insurgents were killed and the rest fled just after police arrived. Two of Dhia's nephews and a bystander were injured, police said.

"We attacked them before they attacked us," Dhia, who did not give his last name, said at his shop a few hours after the battle, his face still contorted with rage and excitement. "We killed three of those who call themselves the mujahedeen. I am waiting for the rest of them to come, and we will show them."

It was the first time private citizens are known to have retaliated successfully against insurgents. There have been anecdotal reports of residents shooting at attackers after a bombing or assassination, but yesterday's gunbattle erupted in full view of a half-dozen witnesses, including a Justice Ministry official who lives nearby.

The battle was the latest sign that Iraqis may be willing to start standing up against the attacks that leave dozens of people dead nearly every week.

After a suicide bombing in Hillah last month that killed 136 people, including a number of women and children, hundreds of residents demonstrated in front of the city hall every day for almost a week, chanting slogans against terrorism. Last week, a smaller but similar rally took place in Baghdad. Another demonstration is scheduled for today in the capital.

Sectarian overtones

Like many of the attacks here, yesterday's gunbattle had sectarian overtones. Dhia and his family are Shiites, and they cook for religious festivals at the Shiite Husseiniya mosque, across from his shop. The insurgents are largely Sunnis, and they have aimed dozens of attacks at Shiite figures, celebrations and even funerals.

The conflict has grown sharper in the past year, with Shiites dominating Iraq's new police force and army, and holding a narrow majority of seats in the newly elected national assembly.

The attack unfolded in Doura, a working-class neighborhood in southern Baghdad where much of the capital's violence is concentrated. A number of assassinations and bombings have taken place in Doura in recent weeks, and police openly acknowledge that they have little control.

Just hours before the gunbattle, an Interior Ministry official was gunned down in Doura as he drove to work, officials said. Elsewhere in Iraq, insurgents continued their campaign of violence.

In the northern city of Mosul, four civilians were killed and 14 wounded when a roadside bomb detonated near a U.S. military convoy, health officials said. The bomb did not appear to have harmed the convoy, witnesses said, but it destroyed four or five civilian cars that were passing near it on the Sunharib bridge, in the city center.

In Anbar province, the troubled area west of Baghdad, gunmen kidnapped six Iraqi soldiers as they walked to a bus station, the Associated Press reported.

Just before the gunbattle in Doura began, witnesses saw the gunmen circling near the Husseiniya mosque in three cars, said Amjad Hamid, 25, who works in Iraq's Ministry of Justice. They stopped near Dhia's shop, across from the mosque.

The men carried pistols and guns, and one had a belt full of hand grenades, Hamid said. When the shooting began, he said, his mother ran outside shouting his name and was struck by bullets in the leg and the ear.

After a group of insurgents fled, leaving one car and three of their dead behind, one gunman remained, the Doura police chief said. The man broke into a nearby house and hid, holding the residents at gunpoint until his friends arrived and drove him away, the police chief said.

Held hostage in home

The owner of the house, who spoke on condition that he not be named, said the gunman entered through the garage and made his way to the living room.

"I heard the screaming of the women, so I went to see what was the matter and I saw a guy holding an AK-47," the man said. He said the gunman then shouted: "Keep me here for a short time until I can leave the area or I will kill you all. I don't want anyone to leave this room."

They obeyed. The gunman telephoned friends and stayed for about an hour until they arrived to pick him up. Before he left, the homeowner said, the gunman issued a final warning: "If you scream or call the police, my friends will come and kill you. They know where you are."

Two of Dhia's nephews, ages 13 and 24, were wounded during the attack, family members said. After police arrived, they recovered the bodies of the three dead insurgents.

Hours later, Dhia was still furiously cursing the mujahedeen when he spoke to a reporter in his carpentry shop. A Shiite cleric quickly told him to stop talking, and he complied.

Meanwhile, a group of armed neighborhood men stood watch on the roof of the house, guarding the streets leading to the Husseiniya mosque and Dhia's shop. "I am sure they will be back," one of them said. "We killed three of them."

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