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."
"Frankly, if somebody attacks coalition forces, or Iraqi army forces, it doesn't matter who they are," said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, another U.S. military spokesman.
The fighting died down Monday afternoon, one resident said, and the people of the community slipped out of their houses to stock up on food. Then they went back inside. On Tuesday morning, gunfire picked up again in the nearby Waziriya area. As the mosque's loudspeakers pleaded with everyone to "stop shooting today," the Iraqi army, backed by U.S. troops, immediately clamped down on the cordoned-off area and imposed a curfew.
Remarkably, it appeared that few people were killed in all the violence. U.S. and Iraqi forces reported no deaths on their side, and the U.S. military reported killing five gunmen.
After the curfew was lifted on Tuesday afternoon, residents gingerly came out onto the street once more. Meanwhile, a statement issued by al-Qaeda in Iraq, the country's most prominent insurgent organization, promised more fighting on Wednesday.
"Al-Qaeda in Iraq is announcing a new raid to avenge the Sunnis at Adhamiyah and the other areas, and the raid will start with the dawn of Wednesday, if God wishes," the statement said. "The Shiite areas will be an open battlefield for us. We will strike anything we face."
One Adhamiyah resident said he wanted to flee the coming storm.
"I could see cars and people in the street," he said. "Some went out shopping and others were carrying bags fleeing the neighborhood, fearing more clashes at night. I am trying to persuade my mother to leave the house and go to my uncle's house in Mansour, but she refused. My wife agreed, but my mother didn't like the idea of leaving the house.
"We don't know what to do. Life in this country has become unendurable. I am going to ask about immigration to any other country. Things will never calm down. Everything is going upside down."
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Saad al-Izzi and K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.