Mystery Hangs Over Baghdad Battle

Iraqis in the Baghdad neighborhood of Suleikh sift through a cafe destroyed in a bombing unrelated to fighting in the Adhamiyah area. Police said at least seven people were killed and more than 20 wounded in the cafe bombing.
Iraqis in the Baghdad neighborhood of Suleikh sift through a cafe destroyed in a bombing unrelated to fighting in the Adhamiyah area. Police said at least seven people were killed and more than 20 wounded in the cafe bombing. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)
By Nelson Hernandez and Bassam Sebti
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

BAGHDAD, April 18 -- As the shooting died down Tuesday afternoon, the tired and frightened residents of Baghdad's Adhamiyah neighborhood packed their cars and prepared to flee. After two days of street fighting that had kept them locked in their houses, they did not want to see what might come next.

The details of the unusual street battle that began Monday remained shrouded by the fog of war. U.S. and Iraqi soldiers thought they were shooting at insurgents who were trying to ambush them. Local men on neighborhood watch in the predominantly Sunni Arab area thought they were shooting at Shiites who were coming to kidnap and kill them. Residents hiding in their homes, simply praying for survival, could only guess who was fighting whom.

"As far as I know, a group of militants went inside and there was fighting with the residents of Adhamiyah, and later on, the police were involved and the MNF-I were involved," said Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, an adviser to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, referring to Multi-National Forces-Iraq, the official name for foreign troops in the U.S.-led military coalition here. "We don't have a clear picture of what's happening there."

Kadhimi's account, vague as it was, was about as much as anyone outside Adhamiyah could figure out for certain. With rumor, speculation and fear filling the void of actual knowledge, the conflicting accounts resembled "Rashomon," the classic Akira Kurosawa film in which a crime takes place and each witness tells a completely different story of what happened.

From the beginning, it was unclear who was attacking and who was defending. Adhamiyah residents, who spoke in telephone interviews on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said gunfire erupted early Monday morning, an hour or two after midnight. U.S. military authorities said that unknown gunmen started shooting at an Iraqi army patrol and that an estimated 50 insurgents later attacked a checkpoint manned by U.S. and Iraqi troops.

But in Adhamiyah, as in many Sunni Arab neighborhoods in Baghdad, organized groups of young men from the area keep watch over the streets. They say they are there to protect residents against attack by Shiite militiamen and Shiite-led Interior Ministry police who have been accused of rounding up Sunnis and executing them. Residents said it was likely that the armed men thought the patrol entering their neighborhood was part of a Shiite militia or the police. So they started shooting.

For the next several hours, residents said, streets empty of everyone but fighters echoed with patter from AK-47 assault rifles, the deeper thump-thump-thump of RPK machine guns and the occasional explosion of a rocket-propelled grenade or mortar shell. The fighting flowed up Omar bin Abdulaziz Street, a broad road that is lined by produce stalls and markets and is home to one of Baghdad's most famous bookstores.

One resident recalled a voice broadcast over a nearby mosque's loudspeakers shouting: "Go for jihad! Defeat these aggressors!" An Associated Press report, quoting a resident, said Sunni gunmen went from house to house, pressing young men to join the fight.

Some residents, whose accounts could not be verified, said the Iraqi army came to the aid of Adhamiyah residents and fought off a coalition of Interior Ministry police, Shiite militiamen and "Iranians" -- a term many Iraqi Sunnis use to refer to Shiites, whom they suspect of loyalty to the Shiite theocracy in neighboring Iran.

"Yesterday, the fighting was in our street, and I heard the heroes of Adhamiyah running in the streets with covered faces and saying, 'Let's surround those Iranians from all sides and finish them. Let's teach them a lesson they will never forget so they will never come here again. Support the Iraqi army,' " said a woman who identified herself as Um Rasha. She and two other residents said the Iraqi army was helping the men of the neighborhood repel the attackers.

An Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman suggested on Tuesday that the original patrol was made up of police rather than army troops, but U.S. military authorities said they had not heard that.

"The gunmen are suspected insurgents," Sgt. Doug Anderson, a U.S. military spokesman, wrote in an e-mail. "It is not known whether they are people from the neighborhood. We cannot confirm that the Iraqi Army may have fought against the police, or at least people dressed as police."

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