New York Times
January 10, 2007
Pg. 1 U.S. And Iraqis Hit Insurgents In All-Day Fight
By Marc Santora
BAGHDAD, Jan. 9 — More than 1,000 American and Iraqi troops, backed by Apache attack helicopters and fighter jets, battled insurgents all day Tuesday and late into the night in downtown Baghdad, in one of the most dramatic operations in the capital since the invasion nearly four years ago.
The fighting raged less than 1,000 yards from the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses both the American command and the Iraqi government. It was the latest episode for the troubled neighborhood around Haifa Street, where major campaigns have repeatedly been initiated to rid the area of insurgents, only to have them re-infiltrate.
Iraqi officials said that at least 50 militants were killed Tuesday, but the Americans said they could not provide a count.
Problems in other contested areas across Baghdad came to a crisis point in the fall, causing American commanders to abandon a major push to regain control of the city, and setting off a policy review that led to the changes President Bush will announce in a speech to the nation on Wednesday night.
The president is widely expected to call for 20,000 to 30,000 more soldiers in Iraq, with many coming to Baghdad to help quell the sectarian fighting.
American commanders have said the strategy will emphasize an evenhanded approach in Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, something that they acknowledge has evaded them as they have worked with Iraq’s Shiite-led government in recent months.
The fighting on Haifa Street, a broad two-mile boulevard that cuts through the heart of the capital, began nearly a week ago as an attempt to secure the safety of citizens caught in the middle of the fighting and ended with pitched battles in the street. It is a reminder of how difficult the Baghdad mission will be.
The American crackdown on Tuesday came on the fourth day of intense fighting in the neighborhood of tightly packed, high-rise apartment buildings that was the home of many top-ranking government officials and Baath Party loyalists while Saddam Hussein was in power. American soldiers continued to patrol the area through the night, and an American military spokesman said they would stay there until the situation was firmly under control. Gunfire and explosions could be heard in the neighborhood well after sunset.
An American military officer familiar with the operation said that it was part of an effort to stabilize Baghdad, but was not directly linked to the president’s new security plan.
However, the location of the fight has particular significance.
Nearly two years ago, after much bloodshed and toil, the American military wrested control of the area from insurgents.
Haifa Street, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, used to be called Purple Heart Boulevard by American soldiers. More than 160 soldiers from the First Battalion of the Ninth Cavalry were wounded trying to secure the area. By the spring of 2005, they had largely done so, and it was trumpeted as a signal success.
Tuesday’s operation, directed by elements of the Stryker Brigade of the First Cavalry Division and Iraqi Sixth Army Division, occurred after a series of events that, taken together, demonstrated the complexity of the fight for American forces and the maze of competing interests they are trying to navigate.
It also suggests that even if the Americans try to deal evenhandedly with Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents, which is expected to be a central theme of President Bush’s plan, their efforts could end up inadvertently benefiting one party or the other.
Shiites are clearly ascendant throughout Baghdad, systematically taking over Sunni neighborhoods, often using the intimidation of death squads to achieve their goals. But the area around Haifa Street has remained a Sunni bastion.
For the past two years, it has been relatively quiet, but in recent months, as the sectarian fighting has intensified, Iraqi and American military officials suspected it was being used as a base of operations for insurgents concentrating on the Shiite civilian population and American forces.
The violence in the area started to increase markedly after the recent arrest of a senior member of the leading Shiite militia group, the Mahdi Army, who had been operating near the area, according to an American military official.
The arrest, the official said, created an opening for Sunni insurgents, and they began aggressively singling out Shiites who had relocated south from the neighborhood of Kadhimiya, the official said.
On Saturday, 27 bodies were dumped in the Sheik Marouf neighborhood on Haifa Street. They were Shiites, four with their throats slit and the rest shot in the head, according to an Iraqi government official.
When the Iraqi police went to investigate and collect the bodies, they were attacked, according to witnesses and government officials. The Iraqi Army was called in and was also attacked, so finally the Americans were called in.
For residents, the situation was already bleak and getting worse, with no electricity for days and armed men taking control of lawless streets.
But the Sunnis in the area were still hostile to the Iraqi security forces, largely viewed as agents of the Shiite-led government.
“People were disgusted and were enraged by the activity of the security forces,” one resident said.
Late Saturday night, Iraqi government officials and witnesses said that Sunni insurgents had set up a fake checkpoint and were pulling Shiites from their cars and executing them, even, some claimed, stringing three bodies from lampposts.
“Some of my friends told me they saw some of the bodies hanging from lampposts,” said Jabbar Obeid, 39, who lives in the area.
American officials said Tuesday that while many people were being executed in the area, they found no evidence of people being hanged on lampposts. Many Sunni residents said the claims were nonsense, and had been aimed at inciting more sectarian violence.
On Sunday, Sunni organizations and politicians began condemning the government’s security clampdown.
“Day after day, the sectarian crimes against the Sunnis in their neighborhoods in Baghdad are continuing,” said Adnan Dulaimi, a member of the largest Sunni bloc in Parliament. The government’s actions over the weekend were a “barbarian attack” aimed at clearing the neighborhood of Sunnis, he said in a statement.
In fighting in the neighborhood on Sunday, eleven Iraqi Army soldiers were killed when they ran out of ammunition, Iraqi officials said.
American military officials said that by then they already had solid evidence to suggest that Sunni insurgent leaders were using the neighborhood as a base of operations. They said that the fighters were organized and sophisticated, and included trained snipers and insurgents from foreign countries.
One Sunni resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, confirmed as much, saying that insurgents had taken over to such a degree that a top-ranking official of Al Qaeda had even seized control of the Rafadin bank, set up an Islamic court and began handing out death sentences.
The American and Iraqi forces completed their assault plans at 4 a.m. Tuesday, and before dawn began approaching Haifa Street from different locations around the city, swiftly closing in on Talaa Square in the center of the neighborhood.
About 6:30 a.m. they had reached the square and began arresting suspects. In all, American and Iraqi officials said, they would take some 15 people into custody, including 7 Syrians. Nearly as soon as they began making arrests, they came under heavy bombardment from small-arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and indirect fire, probably mortars, according to an American military official. As the fighting intensified, insurgents began moving to the rooftops in order to shoot at the armored American attack vehicles on the roads below.
To deal with the gunmen on the rooftops, rather than fighting for control of entire buildings, the Americans called in Apache helicopters and fighter jets, the official said.
The neighborhood is densely packed, making it difficult to strike targets from the air, and the fighter jets were used to “make a show of force,” according to the military official, in an attempt to frighten the gunmen from the rooftops.
For more than an hour on Tuesday morning, the fighter jets could be seen sharply dropping below the cloud cover, swooping low over the neighborhood’s roofline, engines roaring, and then pulling up steeply and zooming out of sight, high into the sky.
Meanwhile, the Apaches attacked the insurgents’ positions, unleashing a barrage of fire that rocked the neighborhood for hours.
Ali Housin, 56, a resident, said he saw the helicopters direct fire at a cemetery where insurgents were hiding, the resulting explosions blowing out the windows of his home.
Shortly after noon, the aerial assault had largely ended, but scattered clashes continued and could be heard late into the night. Residents reported American armored vehicles patrolling the streets after dark and Iraqi Army soldiers moving to secure control of the rooftops.
The Americans reported no casualties, and early reports indicated that two soldiers in the Iraqi Army had been wounded.
American officials insisted that the information they had on the insurgents in the area was very detailed, and that they had been careful to try to ensure that they were not being used as pawns by the Shiite-dominated government, emphasizing that in recent days they had conducted similarly aggressive raids in Shiite neighborhoods. John F. Burns and Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed reporting.