U.S.-Iraqi troops battle Sunnis in central Baghdad showdown
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- U.S. and Iraqi troops battled Sunni insurgents hiding in high-rise buildings on Haifa Street in the heart of Baghdad Wednesday, with snipers on roofs taking aim at gunmen in open windows as Apache attack helicopters hovered overhead.
Iraq said 30 militants were killed and 27 captured.
New details also emerged about the downing of a private U.S. security company helicopter on Tuesday, with U.S. and Iraqi officials saying four of five Americans who died in the incident were shot execution-style. Violence was unrelenting in Iraq on Wednesday, with at least 69 people killed or found dead, including 33 tortured bodies found in separate locations in Baghdad.
With President Bush pushing a controversial plan to increase troops strength in Iraq, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the latest joint raid was aimed at clearing the Haifa Street area of "terrorists and outlaws" targeting residents. He promised such operations would continue as U.S. and Iraqi troops prepare for a broader security crackdown to stanch the sectarian bloodletting that has turned Baghdad into a battlefield.
At 5 a.m. Wednesday, Iraqi army and American troops moved into the Sunni stronghold to launch targeted raids in a third bid this month to clear the neighborhood of militants. Armored vehicles massed along Haifa Street, where a median with trees separates four lanes of traffic lined by tall apartment houses built by Saddam Hussein for loyalists and dissidents from other Arab countries, mainly Syria.
The U.S.-Iraqi force faced fierce resistance from insurgents using hand-grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms from the high-rises, the American military said. The explosions were so loud they could be heard across the capital. Black smoke rose from the area, located on the west bank of the Tigris River about a mile north of the Green Zone, site of the U.S. and British embassies as well as the Iraqi government headquarters.
At one point, U.S. and Iraqi forces rushed into an office building on the edge of Haifa Street and told all the employees to go home as they fanned out and sent snipers to the roof, according to Jabbar al-Mashhadani, a Cultural Ministry spokesman.
The U.S. military said the combined force in the operation, dubbed Tomahawk Strike II, detained seven suspected insurgents and seized heavy weapons, including many rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank rounds and 155 mm artillery rounds. The Iraqi Defense Ministry said 30 insurgents were killed and 27 captured, including four Egyptians and a Sudanese.
At least one civilian was killed and seven were wounded, hospital and police officials said.
The military reported separately that an American soldier was killed Wednesday in clashes near the city's center, but officials declined to give more specifics or say whether the death was connected to the Haifa Street fighting. Two U.S. Marines also were reported killed on Tuesday during combat in Anbar province, the military said.
Haifa Street, a major avenue in central Baghdad, was built in the late 1970s and cuts through the neighborhood where Saddam attended school as a teenager and where he once lived with his maternal uncle and future father-in-law.
It has been the site of repeated clashes, including a major battle Jan. 9, just three days after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced his new security plan for pacifying Baghdad. Fighting broke out again about a week later.
A bronze statue of Iraq's late King Faisal on horseback sits at one end of the broad avenue. During a visit to the neighborhood after the 1991 Gulf war, residents complained to Saddam about their poverty, prompting him to order homes demolished and new apartment complexes built.
Just off Haifa Street is a square where a large statue for Saddam's cousin and brother-in-law, Adnan Khairallah, still stands. It was widely believed that Saddam was behind Khairallah's death in a helicopter crash in 1989 because the defense minister was becoming too popular.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, meanwhile, offered condolences for the five Americans killed in the helicopter crash in Baghdad, called them good men and said he had traveled with them. The aircraft, belonging to the Blackwater USA security company, went down as it flew over a dangerous Sunni neighborhood while a gunfight was raging.
Confusion still cloaked the circumstances of the crash.
A senior Iraqi military official said a machine gunner downed the helicopter and four of the men were shot execution-style on the ground, but a U.S. military official in Washington said there were no indications the aircraft had been shot out of the sky. Three Sunni insurgent groups separately claimed responsibility for the crash, with one posting on its Web site the ID cards of one of the Americans.
In Washington, a U.S. defense official said four of the five were shot in the back of the head, but he did not know whether they were alive when shot. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
The helicopter went down after racing to help a U.S. Embassy ground convoy that came under fire in a neighborhood on the east side of the Tigris, said a U.S. diplomatic official in Washington.
The doomed helicopter swooped into electrical wires before the crash. U.S. officials said it was not clear if gunfire brought down the aircraft or caused its pilot to veer into the wires during evasive maneuvers.
A second helicopter also was struck, but there were no casualties among its crew, said the diplomatic official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to make statements.
An American official in Baghdad, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said three Blackwater helicopters were involved. One had landed for an unknown reason and one of the Blackwater employees was shot at that point, he said. That helicopter apparently was able to take off but a second one then crashed in the same area, he added without explaining the involvement of the third helicopter. It was unclear whether the wounded employee survived.
Al-Jazeera television said the 1920 Revolution Brigades, a Sunni insurgent group, claimed responsibility for shooting down the helicopter and showed a video taken by a cell phone of a mass of smoldering twisted metal that it was said was the wreckage of the chopper.
The Islamic Army, in a statement posted on the Internet, said it downed a helicopter at about 1 p.m. Tuesday in the nearby Maydan area.
Another Sunni insurgent group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, also claimed responsibility and posted identity cards of men who were on the helicopter on a Web site, including at least two that bore the name of Arthur Laguna, who was later identified by his mother as among those killed.
Laguna was a 52-year-old pilot for Blackwater who previously served in the Army and the California National Guard, his mother, Lydia Laguna of Rio Linda, Calif., told the AP.
It was the second helicopter crash in Iraq in four days. A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter went down Saturday northeast of Baghdad, killing all 12 service members on board. The American military in Baghdad has refused to confirm a report by a Pentagon official that debris at the crash site indicated the helicopter was downed by a surface-to-air missile.
AP writers Steven R. Hurst in Baghdad, and Barry Schweid and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.