By Sudarsan Raghavan and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
BAGHDAD, Jan. 9 -- With F-15 fighter jets and Apache helicopter gunships providing cover, U.S. and Iraqi troops on Tuesday battled hundreds of Sunni Arab insurgents firing from apartment buildings and houses in downtown Baghdad in one of the fiercest clashes in the capital in recent memory.
"It was the most intense combat I have ever seen," said Maj. Jesse Pearson, operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, Stryker Brigade, on his third tour in Iraq. "We were in a fight for 11 straight hours."
Along Haifa Street, a desolate, mostly Sunni Arab enclave of residential buildings and shops, more than 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops descended early Tuesday to retake the insurgent stronghold. The larger goal was to reassert the authority of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, weakened by sectarian and political divides and a failure to stem Iraq's violent slide.
Instead, the troops encountered strong resistance as the well-organized insurgents appeared determined to protect their turf or fight their way out, surprising U.S. soldiers who fought in the battle. By evening, as many as 50 insurgents had been killed, Iraqi officials said, while 21 others, including several foreign fighters, were captured, but only after the use of massive U.S. firepower and technology. No American or Iraqi troops were killed, although some suffered light injuries, U.S. military officials said.
With President Bush scheduled to unveil his new strategy for Iraq on Wednesday, the battle on Haifa Street points to the nature of the conflict U.S. forces could face in the weeks and months ahead. U.S. generals and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki view the taming of Baghdad as vital to the stability of Iraq. But the capital has become polarized more than ever along sectarian lines, with entire neighborhoods in the grip of either Sunni insurgents or Shiite militias.
"All sides are getting more desperate to enforce their will and increasingly they are capable of doing that," said Sgt. Israel Schaeffer, who is on his second tour in Iraq. "It's a pivotal point in the conflict."
"This is obviously their home turf," Pearson said. "They didn't like the idea of government forces entering their territory."
On Saturday, Maliki announced a new Baghdad security plan in which Iraqi forces, with U.S. assistance, will lead the effort to expel militant fighters from neighborhoods. Maliki and other Shiite leaders view Sunni insurgents as the root of the violence infecting Iraq. But Sunni politicians have accused the Shiite-led government of bolstering the power of Shiites at the expense of Sunnis.
Sunni legislator Khalaf al-Alayan, in an interview on al-Jazeera television, described the fighting on Haifa Street as a way to "clean Baghdad of the remaining Sunni elements." Alayan said he had contacted organizations such as the Arab League and the United Nations in hopes of stopping "these massacres that the Sunnis are subjected to."
In a statement, the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party described the 50 killed as "innocent citizens." It asserted that Sunnis on Haifa Street were "under siege" by Shiite militias backed by the Iraqi army.
The fighting in the area began four days ago, when Iraqi soldiers killed 30 insurgents after uncovering what was described as an unauthorized checkpoint, according to a Defense Ministry spokesman. Pearson said Iraqi army commanders asked for U.S. assistance after insurgents killed several Iraqi soldiers two days ago.
"What you're seeing is a continuing effort to bring down the levels of sectarian violence," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl. "It's an ongoing effort to go after militias that have the intent to subvert the Iraqi government."
At 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, about 400 U.S. troops from the Stryker Brigade rolled toward Haifa Street, meeting up with Iraqi army units along the way.
They arrived about 5:30 a.m. In the pre-dawn darkness, the joint forces took control of the buildings surrounding Tallil Square, a key target of the operation.
"We showed up in their living room for breakfast," Pearson said. About 7 a.m., the trouble began. "As soon as the sun came up, the insurgents began shooting," he said.
"We started taking it from all sides," Schaeffer recalled.
From rooftops and doorways, the gunmen fired AK-47 assault rifles and machine guns. Snipers also were targeting the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. U.S. soldiers started firing back with 50-caliber machine guns mounted on their Stryker armored vehicles. They used TOW missiles and Mark-19 grenade launchers. The F-15 fighter jets strafed rooftops with cannons, while the Apaches fired Hellfire missiles. But the insurgents kept fighting.
"They were able to coordinate mortars at us. They were able to execute well-aimed shots from the cover of buildings," said Capt. Robert Callaghan, who was coordinating air support for the operation. "There were mortar rounds that went off close to our vehicle. It was difficult to concentrate on my job."
Schaeffer was surprised. He was accustomed to the hit-and-run tactics that the insurgents typically have used over the past few months.
"We fired a TOW missile into a building," he said. "A few minutes later we started taking fire again from the building. Normally, that would have pretty much ended the whole engagement. They were fighting pretty persistently."
"The terrain was in their favor," he added. "It is about as defensible a terrain as you can get."
Still, Schaeffer said, the Iraqi forces appeared to be holding their own -- much better, he said, than in previous operations.
"It never felt like complete chaos," he said.
Building by building, U.S. and Iraqi forces moved a mile or so down Haifa Street, which weaves along the Tigris River. On every block, insurgents attacked them.
"They probably thought we had the whole area surrounded," said Schaeffer. "Which we didn't."
The soldiers said U.S. and Iraqi troops captured several insurgents in possession of gear belonging to the Iraqi soldiers killed two days ago. For the Iraqi troops, it was a special form of retribution.
"It was a big moral victory, and huge for their morale," Pearson said. "This is a statement that the Iraqi army is not going to back down."
"It was a day to remember," Callaghan said.
Also Tuesday, at least 31 people were killed when a cargo plane carrying Turkish citizens crashed while trying to land in thick fog at an airport in Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, Turkish officials told news services.
On Monday, 10 days after Saddam Hussein's hanging, his trial on charges of ordering the killing of as many as 180,000 Iraqi Kurds continued without him. Prosecutors played audiotapes of Hussein's voice justifying the use of chemical weapons that would kill "thousands," the Associated Press reported.
"Kurdish people have been waiting for this moment," said Saad Barazanchi, a Kurdish legislator. "This is evidence that Saddam ordered chemical weapons to be used against the Kurds."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Waleed Saffar in Baghdad and Muhanned Saif Aldin in Tikrit contributed to this report.