Troops Battle Insurgents in Central Baghdad

Smoke rises over the Haifa Street area in Baghdad, where troops backed by U.S. aircraft fought a long battle that began before dawn. A similar fight occurred there Jan. 9.
Smoke rises over the Haifa Street area in Baghdad, where troops backed by U.S. aircraft fought a long battle that began before dawn. A similar fight occurred there Jan. 9. (By Samir Mizban -- Associated Press)
By Ernesto Londoño and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 25, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 24 -- With attack helicopters circling overhead, U.S. and Iraqi forces waged an intense battle Wednesday to clear armed men from high-rise buildings in a strategic Baghdad neighborhood that had been the scene of a similar day of combat two weeks ago.

The fighting along Haifa Street, a Sunni-dominated area on the west bank of the Tigris River, began before dawn and lasted well into the day, with insurgents firing down from tall buildings, U.S. military officials said.

"We have intelligence information that the terrorist group is back and trying to take some other places," said Ali Dabbagh, a spokesman for the prime minister. "It's a very strategic and important location. It's in the middle of Baghdad; it has a view of all of Baghdad."

The recurring fighting on Haifa Street illustrates the severe challenges facing the 17,500 additional U.S. troops that President Bush plans to send to Baghdad to try to secure the city. In a treacherous, cramped urban setting, and surrounded by civilians, U.S. and Iraqi troops have repeatedly fought for control of neighborhoods in the capital, only to have insurgents return to fight again.

On Wednesday, U.S. and Iraqi forces came under attack around Haifa Street and responded with mortar fire, the military said in a statement. "As light broke on the city, troops met enemy resistance, including hand-held grenades, small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades from high-rise buildings," the statement said.

Explosions could be heard coming from the area and thick black smoke rose above the high-rises that line the street. The military said it seized a cache of weapons, including numerous rocket-propelled grenades and antitank rounds, during the raid.

More than 30 "terrorists" were arrested during the operation and roughly 25 were killed, Dabbagh said Wednesday night. A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, said he was aware of seven arrests and did not know whether anyone had died.

A U.S. soldier died Wednesday in central Baghdad after being shot, the military said in a statement. It was unclear whether the soldier died in the Haifa Street operation.

The military also disclosed Wednesday that two Marines were killed Tuesday in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

The U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, told reporters Wednesday that he was encouraged by early indications that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was taking a tougher stance against Shiite militias in Baghdad.

"We will have to wait and see what happens, but I believe that recent trends . . . [are] more positive than in the past," Khalilzad said. "But there is ongoing concern about death squad activities, about the future of the militias, concern that they might be lying low, avoiding a conflict now, in order to fight another day."

Speaking at the embassy in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, Khalilzad questioned whether radical Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the powerful Mahdi Army militia, was sincere in his appeals to end the violence. "Is it a change of tactic or is it a change of heart?"

Khalilzad said Maliki's change of stance was likely driven by the failure of political engagement with Sadr and other Iraqi factions to slow the sectarian killing.

This week, the U.S. military said in a statement that Iraqi and U.S.-led troops had launched 52 operations against the Mahdi Army and that 600 militiamen were in detention, including 16 high-level figures. In previous efforts to pacify Baghdad, Maliki has failed to rein in Shiite militias.

Khalilzad also discussed briefly the five American security contractors, employees of Blackwater USA, who were killed in Baghdad on Tuesday. U.S. officials have said a Blackwater helicopter was shot down while assisting a U.S. Embassy convoy that came under attack in central Baghdad.

"We lost five fine men," Khalilzad said. "They helped me, I've traveled with them, so I went and visited them and saw them while in the morgue yesterday. I felt very bad, because as I said, I knew these people."

Khalilzad said the helicopter crash was under investigation. U.S. officials on Wednesday did not confirm reports that some of the contractors might have been shot after their small helicopter crashed.

A Sunni insurgent group known as the 1920 Revolution Brigades posted a video clip on the Internet that purports to show the downed Blackwater helicopter smoldering near a building and the corpses of at least two men. The authenticity of the video could not be verified.

In Baghdad, police said Wednesday that they had found 17 bodies of people shot in the head during the past 24 hours. Also Wednesday, mortar shells killed at least six civilians, while makeshift bombs in markets killed at least eight, according to Brig. Gen. Abdullah Muhsin of the Interior Ministry.

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