By Nelson Hernandez and Hassan Shammari
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
BAGHDAD, May 15 -- U.S.-led forces killed more than 40 Sunni Arab fighters in a series of ferocious battles south of Baghdad, military officials said Monday. Officials also announced the deaths of four U.S. service members, including two soldiers killed when insurgents shot down their helicopter in the area of the insurgent clashes.
The combat on Sunday and Monday appeared to be larger in scale than previous encounters in the area. The first attack took place near the town of Yusufiyah when U.S.-led troops and aircraft moved in on a suspected insurgent safe house, the military said. The aircraft attacked both the house and a vehicle parked outside, resulting in a chain reaction of explosions. Two suspected insurgents were killed and four were detained, the military said.
As helicopters departed, carrying two women who were injured in the blasts, the insurgents opened fire on them from another location, the military said. The ground troops called for more air support, and jets and helicopters pounded the enemy positions, killing approximately 20 more suspected insurgents.
During the battle, three other fighters in a truck tried to break through a security perimeter, but they were shot by ground troops, the military said. One of the three detonated a vest containing explosives, killing himself but no one else.
The downing of the helicopter took place near Yusufiyah, a predominantly Sunni Arab town about 10 miles south of the capital, the military said in a brief statement. A U.S. military spokesman reached by telephone said he could not elaborate on the circumstances of the incident for reasons of operational security.
Mudhaffar al-Qaraghouli, a tribal leader in the area south of Baghdad, said that after the American helicopter was shot down, a powerful airstrike by U.S.-led forces caused many families in the area to flee. The strike killed several civilians, he said, and leveled houses. "We spent a long, scary night with our families and children," Qaraghouli said.
U.S. forces, however, denied that civilians were killed. "I can confirm that there were no civilian casualties in this incident," said Navy Cmdr. Robert Mulac, a military spokesman.
Another witness, Mohammed Khayria, said he saw insurgents on his roof shooting at the helicopters with missiles and machine guns, and a local police lieutenant, Karim Mohammed, said the insurgents had deployed a special unit meant to shoot down helicopters.
Later Sunday night, troops raided four sites near Latifiyah, a town a few miles south of Yusufiyah, killing 16 suspected insurgents.
Separately, two Marines, both of Regimental Combat Team 7, died Sunday west of Baghdad in Anbar province, another predominantly Sunni area. The military did not specify exactly where the incident took place, or how the Marines died, saying only that the deaths were "due to enemy action."
The attacks on coalition forces have not been confined to Sunni areas. Insurgents on Monday morning lobbed more than 30 mortar rounds at a British military base in predominantly Shiite southern Iraq, wounding four soldiers.
Gunmen also killed four Shiite schoolteachers at al-Sabah High School in Balad Ruz, a town northeast of Baghdad in Diyala province, police Lt. Adnan Ali Kadhum said.
The four teachers were riding in a minibus when a Kia pickup truck blocked their way, said Maithan Ali Kanaan, a guard at the school. About six gunmen forced six passengers and the driver to get out. Two Sunni teachers and the driver were apparently spared and allowed to flee.
"After that, we heard the gunshots," Kanaan said. "After the armed men left, we hurried to the minibus. We found the four teachers lined up on the sidewalk bleeding and shot dead."
The trial of Saddam Hussein resumed Monday with a lengthy court session during which the former Iraqi president and his seven co-defendants were formally charged and defense attorneys presented their first five witnesses.
Hussein was charged with crimes against humanity, and over 15 minutes Judge Raouf Rasheed Abdel-Rahman read a statement outlining his crimes: an attack on the people of the village of Dujail, beginning after an assassination attempt against Hussein there in 1982; murder, deportation, imprisonment; torture. He was accused of ordering the execution of 148 people.
"In the light of the facts I have outlined, are you guilty or not guilty?" Abdel-Rahman asked when he finished.
"I cannot give you a short answer to a lengthy presentation that disregarded all the testimony given in this court," Hussein said. "Whether you or someone else has written this is of no concern to me, and won't disturb one hair on my head -- you are in front of Saddam Hussein, the president of the republic. . . . "
"You are a defendant!" the judge cried.
"I am the president of the republic by the will of Iraqis, and I respect their will," Hussein said. "I do not recognize the agents who were brought here under banners and given titles and became political officials. Therefore, I cannot say yes or no. "
"I will give you and your lawyers a chance to talk freely at a later time, but for procedural purposes this is enough. Please sit down now," Abdel-Rahman said.
Hussein sat down, and the court entered a plea of not guilty.
Shammari reported from Balad Ruz. Special correspondents Salih Saif Aldin, Naseer Nouri, Saad al-Izzi, Omar Fekeiki and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad contributed to this report.