Friday, December 1, 2006

Heavy fighting in Baghdad

U.S., Iraqi forces fight gunmen in capital

By Ross Colvin and Alastair Macdonald1 hour, 13 minutes ago

Iraqi troops backed by U.S. attack helicopters fought militants in central Baghdad on Friday when figures showed a sharp leap in the number of Iraqis who died violently in November.

Two Apache helicopters firing anti-missile flares swooped over Fadhil neighborhood, a Sunni insurgent stronghold in one of the oldest parts of the capital, amid the slow thump of heavy machinegun fire, witnesses said.

On the ground U.S. and Iraqi troops, raiding the area's narrow alleyways in a hunt for insurgent hideouts, clashed with gunmen who killed one Iraqi soldier and wounded five, an Interior Ministry official said.

The Defense Ministry said 43 people were detained and a house was found that appeared to be a guerrilla field hospital.

While Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki received strong backing from President Bush on Thursday, he remains under pressure to get tougher with Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias who have created virtual no-go zones in the capital and are blamed for thousands of deaths.

Data from Interior Ministry officials showed a 44 percent leap in civilian casualties in November compared with October. The increase, to 1,850 deaths, was matched by a 45 percent rise in the number of civilian deaths tallied by Reuters.

They included the 202 people killed in last week's multiple car bombing in the Shi'ite stronghold of Sadr city, the worst attack since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The violence has its epicenter in Baghdad, despite thousands of U.S. troops being poured into the capital to help the Iraqi army regain control of the streets from sectarian death squads through search and clear operations.

The U.S. military said Friday's operation by the 9th Iraqi Army Division and U.S. soldiers in Fadhil was aimed at "capturing and denying a safe haven to terrorist forces."

"The targets of these raids are believed to be regularly killing innocent Iraqis and have an active campaign designed to disrupt the peace and stability of the region," it said.


A local resident, Abu Omar al-Qaisi, said Iraqi troops and armed men in civilian clothes had entered the area at dawn, sparking clashes in which several people were killed. He said he had helped carry eight bodies into a local mosque.

At midday, four U.S. armored Humvee vehicles had entered his street and directed machinegun fire at a local secondary school, he told Reuters by telephone. Shooting could be heard in the background. By late afternoon, a relative calm had returned.

U.S. forces earlier staged numerous raids in and around Baghdad, killing two suspected al Qaeda insurgents and detaining 27, the military said in a statement.

The fighting comes amid reports that an independent bipartisan group will recommend U.S. troops pull back into their bases in Iraq in more of a support role, while providing training and equipment for Iraqi forces.

Maliki has complained that his security forces, heavily dependent on U.S. armor and airpower, are ill-equipped to tackle the violence and need more weapons.

Maliki said after meeting Bush in Jordan on Thursday his forces would be able to take over security command from U.S. troops by June 2007, a move which could allow Washington to start withdrawing.

But U.S. commanders have grave worries about the sectarian loyalties and effectiveness of Iraqi police and troops. The Sunni minority views some units as hostile Shi'ite militias.

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