Fighting rages in Iraq's capital

U.S., Iraqi troops and aircraft kill dozens of insurgents in Sunni area of Baghdad

January 10, 2007|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, IRAQ -- In fierce, daylong fighting, 1,000 American and Iraqi troops assisted by U.S. attack helicopters and planes battled gunmen in a Sunni Arab neighborhood yesterday, killing at least 51 militants, Iraqi officials said.

The offensive, the heaviest fighting in the capital in months, came in response to a buildup of insurgents in the Haifa Street neighborhood adjacent to the heavily fortified Green Zone government complex. Sunni gunmen had erected fake checkpoints in recent days, residents said, and in one case, pulled passengers from a minibus, killing them and stringing their bodies from electricity poles.

U.S. airstrikes continued through the day and smoke rose over the neighborhood while explosions and shooting echoed through the streets. Snipers fought back from high-rise apartment buildings, supporting fellow insurgents with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.

Troops went door to door, searching for militants. No U.S. or Iraqi troops or civilians were killed, Iraqi officials said.

The bloody fighting broke out a day before President Bush was expected to announce the deployment of at least 20,000 more troops to Iraq and underscored the challenges ahead in Baghdad.

Some commanders say the violence could increase with more American troops in the capital. Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, who is retiring soon as the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, has opposed troop increases in the past in part because he has argued that they offer more targets for insurgents. Rather than increasing the feeling of security, added troops can add to the feeling of chaos, in Abizaid's view, if insurgents set off bombs every time an American convoy moves through.

Advocates of a troop increase say that a larger U.S. force, especially in urban areas, could deter insurgents and Shiite militias.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a top U.S. commander on the ground announced a new plan last week to secure the capital. But past plans, including the recent Together Forward, have failed - in part because rebels tend to regroup elsewhere and return once the troops have left, making the American military's efforts akin to a game of Whac-a-Mole, critics say.

The Haifa Street neighborhood, where Saddam Hussein once gave away free real estate to army officers and party officials, emerged after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion as a place of widespread resistance. For a while, residents openly flew black flags, declaring holy war against Americans.

Then known as "Purple Heart Boulevard" because of a high number of U.S. casualties, Haifa Street was declared a success story by Bush in late 2005 after Iraqi security forces reduced the number of attacks. At the time, American and Iraqi troops established a presence on the streets, prompting a cleanup of the area. Potholes from bombs and mortars were filled and violence ebbed.

Iraqi forces were left responsible for maintaining order in the neighborhood but could not effectively do so on their own.

In the past year, rebels regrouped in and around this three-mile stretch of road through central Baghdad. Last week, police recovered 27 bodies dumped near a cemetery as militants flooded the neighborhood from other parts of the city.

On Sunday, a security guard said a sniper holed up at a local mosque killed two guards. The next day, gunmen roamed the streets, distributing leaflets threatening to kill anyone who might enter the area, a witness said.

When Iraqi security forces tried to clear the neighborhood, rebels fought them off, Iraqi officials said.

Shortly before dawn yesterday, American and Iraqi troops swarmed the neighborhood. U.S. aircraft then targeted gunmen in the streets and snipers on the roofs, witnesses said.

"I saw with my own eyes a vehicle filled with gunmen carrying weapons and rocket launchers," said Abdullah Jassim, one of the few Shiites in the area. "A few moments later, the car was torn to pieces by an air strike, setting the vehicle ablaze and killing all those who were inside."

Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a U.S. military spokesman, said the joint campaign along Haifa Street will "continue until this area is secured."

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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