Offensive aims to disrupt insurgency in Baghdad
A U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire Wednesday in the capital.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Attack helicopters pumped rockets at gunmen holed up in office towers and apartment blocks Wednesday, as U.S. and Iraqi forces swept through a notorious Sunni-insurgent enclave in the heart of Baghdad.
The U.S. military said the fighting around Haifa Street was part of a new offensive launched before dawn to disrupt illegal militias and bring the volatile area at the heart of Baghdad under the control of Iraqi security forces.
The attack began within hours after President Bush, in his State of the Union speech, urged Congress to get behind his plan to boost troops and crack down on violence in Baghdad and other volatile areas of Iraq.
The low thud of mortar blasts rocked the capital for hours, and smoke billowed into the sky above Haifa Street, dubbed "Sniper Alley," which U.S. and Iraqi forces have struggled to tame.
It was the second time this month that U.S. and Iraqi forces clashed with insurgents on the commercial and residential street just north of the Green Zone, which is home to the U.S. and British embassies, as well as the Iraqi parliament.
Iraqi officials said the operation was not part of a planned security offensive for the capital, but that it would prepare the way for a more concerted ground effort to clear out and hold troubled neighborhoods.
"What kind of security plan is this?" asked one terrified resident, who spent the morning cowering in his home near Haifa Street. "They are destroying us, pounding an area less than 1-square-kilometer with mortars, shells from helicopters and their tanks."
Result of action
As many as 31 gunmen were killed and 35 detained Wednesday, including numerous foreign fighters, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement. The U.S. military confirmed only seven arrests.
At least one U.S. soldier was killed in small-arms fire in central Baghdad on Wednesday, the military said, but it did not specify whether the death was related to the Haifa offensive.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of two Marines in combat Tuesday in Anbar province, west of the capital, bringing the total number of U.S. personnel killed since the start of the Iraq war in 2003 to 3,063, according to the Web site icasualties.org.
In the Haifa Street sweep, Iraqi soldiers and police were joined by elements of the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, and the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat team, 2nd Infantry Division for the operation dubbed Tomahawk Strike 11.
Iraqi forces said they uncovered a large weapons cache near Karkh High School, where the late President Saddam Hussein studied in his youth.
Numerous rocket-propelled grenades, as well as anti-tank and artillery rounds were seized, the U.S. military said.
Objections of Sunnis
Sunni political and religious leaders protested the operation, which Adnan al-Dulaimi, a lawmaker with the main Sunni bloc, called "barbaric."
Residents accused the United States of unwittingly aiding Shiite Muslim militiamen accused of trying to force the mostly Sunni Arab inhabitants from their homes in recent weeks, as part of a pattern of sectarian cleansing that is redrawing the map of the once largely integrated capital.
The U.S. military stressed in a statement that the operation did not target only Sunni insurgents, but was "rather aimed at rapidly isolating all active insurgents and gaining control of this key central Baghdad location."
Bush has pledged to send about 17,500 troops to Baghdad and another 4,000 to western Anbar province to help Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki quell the violence, despite opposition from Democrats who now control both houses of Congress.
Critics say the plan risks drawing U.S. troops into a complicated civil war and exposes them to the possibility of increased casualties.
Wednesday's battle took place across the river from the site where a private helicopter crashed Tuesday. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad offered his condolences Wednesday for five killed contractors from Blackwater USA, which provides security to U.S. officials and other clients in Baghdad.
Violence continued Wednesday, with at least 51 Iraqis reported killed in attacks across the country.