Troops Backed by Helicopters Battle Insurgents in Baghdad

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

BAGHDAD, April 10 -- With attack helicopters firing into the streets below, U.S. and Iraqi forces fought Sunni gunmen in a densely packed downtown enclave on Tuesday, the heaviest fighting seen in the capital since the launch of a security offensive eight weeks ago.

The U.S. military said four Iraqi army soldiers and three insurgents were killed and 16 American soldiers were wounded in a street battle that raged throughout the day in the Fadhel neighborhood. The military reported one civilian casualty, an injured child, but witnesses said that they saw at least 18 bodies, including those of civilians, and that a dozen people were injured.

Two U.S. helicopters involved in the battle, an Apache and a Black Hawk, were struck by gunfire from the streets and rooftops, forcing them to return to their base. As the Apache left, it jettisoned a pod containing small rockets, said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Garver, a military spokesman.

"We saw the Humvees rolling into the neighborhood. Suddenly, the mujaheddin emerged onto the street, and the clashes began to take place from one alley to another," said Abdul Rahman Abdul Latif, 63, a mechanic, using a term for Muslim guerrilla fighters. "People fled into their houses. Others were caught in the crossfire. The shooting didn't stop at all."

As thousands more U.S. troops enter the capital, Tuesday's battle illustrated the tenuous hold that security forces have over volatile areas. Only days ago, U.S. troops were patrolling and conducting security sweeps in Fadhel, a Sunni insurgent stronghold, without incident, according to witnesses and U.S. military officials.

"We know there are anti-Iraqi forces waiting out there to fight, and wanting to fight when it is to their advantage," said Garver, using the military's term for insurgents. "We expect the enemy to strike back. He's not done. He's going to keep fighting hard."U.S. and Iraqi troops face greater risks now than in earlier attempts to pacify Baghdad because they are spending more time in violent areas. A constellation of neighborhood security outposts, where U.S. and Iraqi soldiers live 24 hours a day, is a key element of the new counterinsurgency strategy that U.S. military officials say is needed to bring stability.

Tuesday's battle was a reminder of the challenges facing U.S. and Iraqi forces in neighborhoods where Sunni militants or Shiite militias have become entrenched after months of sectarian violence and have the ability to attack at any moment.

Fadhel is across the Tigris River from Haifa Street, another predominantly Sunni area where U.S. and Iraqi forces fought a fierce battle against insurgents in January, as President Bush was about to announce his new strategy to pacify Iraq. In that 11-hour clash, the gunmen were determined to hold their turf, surprising U.S. soldiers who used heavy firepower and technology to take control.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of four American soldiers on Tuesday, three in a roadside bombing in southeastern Baghdad and one in Anbar province. The deaths brought the number of U.S. dead this month to 45, half of whom were killed in Baghdad, according to the military's figures. If the pace continues, April would become the deadliest month for U.S. troops so far this year.

In the town of Muqdadiyah, northeast of Baghdad, a suicide bomber wearing an explosives belt under her head-to-toe garment killed at least 15 recruits and injured 17 near a police station, police officials said.

In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded near the Baghdad University campus, killing five people. Police also found nine unidentified corpses, all blindfolded and shot in the head, in various neighborhoods of the capital.

To the south, in the city of Iskandariyah, a bomb planted near a house killed four people and injured six, said Capt. Muthana Ahmad, a Babil province police spokesman.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company