James Hider, Baghdad
Corpses lay unclaimed in deserted streets of central Baghdad yesterday and accusations of extrajudicial execution hung over the US-trained Iraqi Army after the most intensive gun battle in the capital since the American military launched its last-ditch security plan to prevent the collapse of the city.
“My neighbour said there was a body of a young man lying in front of a shop near his home,” said Muhammad Sayid, a shopkeeper in the working-class district of Fadhil, a Sunni enclave in the largely Shia east Baghdad. “It might be the shopkeeper, but nobody, neither the family nor the Army, could pick it up because of the chaos.”
The fighting erupted early on Tuesday when Iraqi army units, including two tanks and several armoured personnel carriers, launched Operation Doolittle in Fadhil, an area of tightly clustered houses, car-repair shops and narrow streets. The Iraqis were backed by US troops, who formed a cordon around the neighbourhood and provided air support with four helicopters.
The operation ran into swift and stiff resistance, mostly from Sunni guerrillas who had been driven into Fadhil from other more violent parts of the city such as Haifa Street and Ghazaliyah, said Lieutenant-Colonel Taleb Abdelrazaq al-Hussein, the commander of Iraqi forces in the area.
“We started raiding known terrorist hideouts. The terrorists opened fire on us and we defeated them,” he said.
The day of ferocious fighting in the city centre left at least 18 “terrorists” dead, he said. Those bodies that could be retrieved by relatives were buried in the nearby Sunni area of Addumi-ya. Many of the mourners shouted slogans against the Shia Government and demanded compensation for those killed, who they insisted were innocent.
Adding to the controversy, the Association of Muslim Scholars, the hardline Sunni religious organisation that has advocated armed resistance against foreign forces in Iraq, accused the government troops of killing two detainees inside a mosque.
“The association condemns this horrible crime carried out by occupiers and the Government,” it said in a statement. A witness in Fadhil said that the two men were killed in an outdoor vegetable market, but Colonel al-Hussein and other Iraqi soldiers denied the charge.
“It is not true,” he told The Times. “The Army is Iraqi, and is made up of different sects.”
Major-General William Caldwell, the US military spokesman in Baghdad, said that four Iraqi soldiers were killed and sixteen Americans wounded in the clashes. One of them was a helicopter crewman, who was hit when the Sunni fighters turned their weapons on the Apaches, damaging all four and forcing them to return to their bases.
Mr Sayid, the shopkeeper, said that the first he saw of the battle was two cars full of armed insurgents chasing through the streets and firing in the air as a warning to residents to stay indoors. He said that the fighters took up positions on rooftops and fired down on the Iraqi soldiers as they advanced through the narrow streets.
General Caldwell said that 20 men had been detained, 12 of them wounded. Two had admitted to having received training in Syria, he said.