January 10, 2007
US and Iraqi troops, backed by American F-15 jet fighters and Apache attack helicopters, fought suspected insurgents for at least 12 hours in one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighbourhoods in what may be a preview of expanded US operations in Iraq.
US and Iraqi officials said the assault on the Haifa Street neighbourhood rooted out an insurgent cell that controlled the area, but residents from the predominantly Sunni Muslim area and Sunni leaders said the American forces had been duped by Iraq's Shia-dominated security forces into participating in a plan to drive Sunnis from the area.
On the eve of President George W. Bush's announcement of a new war plan for Iraq, the conflicting versions underscored the difficulty US troops have in protecting civilians in this sprawling capital where Shiites and Sunnis are waging pitched battles for control of the neighbourhoods.
In the past several months, Shia militias have pushed into Sunni neighbourhoods, threatening residents with death if they don't leave. Sunni residents have responded by arming themselves and welcoming protection from Iraq's insurgents.
With Mr Bush expected to order additional troops to Baghdad in coming weeks, Sunni leaders have worried that US troops will end up helping the Shiites push them from their neighbourhoods.
US officials said Tuesday's operation wasn't aimed at any religious sect, but at insurgents who've controlled Haifa Street for months.
"It's an area that needed to be brought back under Iraqi security control," said Lieutenant Colonel Scott Bleichwehl, a US military spokesman. "There is a progression of missions that are ongoing. It's not against any particular group or militia. Most of it is driven by the Iraqi government."
Ali al-Dabaggh, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the assault was part of a government effort to reassert its authority in an area where insurgents had taken refuge with remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
"This area must be cleansed," he said at a joint news conference with Rear Admiral Mark Fox, a US military spokesman. "God willing, Haifa Street will not threaten Baghdad security anymore."
Mr Al-Dabaggh said former Baathists in the area "provided safe haven and logistics for" terrorist groups trying to destabilise Iraq.
Rear Admiral Fox said the US military would support the Iraqi security forces. "Anyone who conducts activities outside the rule of law will be subject to the consequences," he said.
Nearly 1000 US and Iraqi soldiers participated in Tuesday's fighting. Fifty suspected insurgents were killed and 21 were arrested, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence said. Three of those arrested were Syrian, the ministry said.
Planes and helicopters circled over the bullet-scarred buildings during the fighting, and gunfire and explosions echoed throughout central Baghdad.
Many Baghdad residents refer to Haifa Street as the capital's "Fallujah," a reference to the Sunni city in Anbar province that became a haven for al-Qa'ida in Iraq until US Marines retook it in a bloody assault in October 2005.
The street was handed over to Iraqi forces in February of last year in an effort to slowly place the capital under Iraqi control and pave the way for an American exit. But in the past few months the area became wracked by violence, and it remains one of the most heavily contested neighbourhoods in the capital's sectarian battle. Nearly every day, bodies bearing signs of torture are found discarded along Haifa Street.
Sunni residents said the fighting in their neighbourhood began Saturday with clashes between Sunnis and Shiites soon after the Association of Muslim Scholars, the most influential Sunni group in Iraq, warned that militias would cleanse Baghdad of Sunnis in the coming days.
On Monday, the residents said, gunmen from the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr pushed into the area, but were beaten back by armed Sunni residents protecting their homes.
At dawn on Tuesday, Iraqi troops began to surround the street and adjacent neighbourhoods, and residents said they took up arms to defend themselves against Shia-dominated forces.
But the residents said they soon realised that the troops were backed by Americans as the Iraqi forces blew in doors and raided homes. Gunmen ringed the roofs, residents said, and men were executed in the streets, three behind a Sunni mosque.
With the Iraqi forces being backed by Americans, the residents soon gave up the fight. They laid down their arms, opened their doors and waited, said Abu Mohammed, 47, a university lecturer who lives on Haifa Street. By 6 pm the troops pulled out and the neighbourhood was calm.
"What they wanted to do was hit us back," said Mohammed, who asked not to be further identified for security reasons. "They went to the Americans and told them, `These are terrorists, and you must come with the government to detain them.'
"We are afraid that this quiet is the quiet before the storm," he said.
The Association of Muslim Scholars called the assault "a bloody sectarian massacre."
Muthana Harith al-Thari, a spokesman for the association, went on al-Jazeera television and read the names of 12 men who were killed.
"All of their guilt was that they defended their neighbourhood," he said. "The American president said in 2003, `Mission accomplished.' Now in 2007 he uses jetfighters a few meters from the Green Zone. This is defeat."
The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political organisation in Iraq, also condemned the action.