Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Fighting Intensifies in Iraq's Capital

Fighting Intensifies in Iraq's Capital

By Tina Susman

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Three US troops are killed in Baghdad on the eve of Gen. David H. Petraeus' testimony before Congress.

Baghdad - Three more U.S. troops were killed Monday as Iraqis struggled to bury their dead amid fierce street battles between Shiite Muslim militias and Iraqi and American soldiers in the nation's capital.

In one of the most intense days of fighting here involving U.S. troops in recent months, American helicopters fired at least four Hellfire missiles and an Air Force jet dropped a bomb on a suspected militia target. Rockets and missiles launched from militia strongholds pounded U.S. bases around the city, where U.S. troops also came under fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades. Targets included the Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and most Iraqi government buildings are located.

The latest American casualties brought to nine the number of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq since Sunday. At least 18 U.S. service members have been killed in and around Baghdad since March 25, when fighting spread to the capital after Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's decision to launch an offensive against Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra.

The fighting and rising death toll are likely to raise new questions about the role of the U.S. in Iraq, and how to define progress or success, as Army Gen. David H. Petraeus appears before Congress today with his latest assessment of the war. The long-awaited testimony will take place before committees that include all three major U.S. presidential candidates: Republican John McCain and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, all of whom will be afforded the chance to question the general.

The fighting in Baghdad has been some of the most intense since January 2007, when American helicopters and warplanes blasted central Baghdad's Haifa Street in an offensive against Sunni Arab insurgents. That month, President Bush announced the deployment of 21,500 extra Americans to quell Iraq's violence and give Iraqi leaders time to mend the political rivalries seen as the root of the fighting. An additional 7,000 support troops were later added.

Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is sure to be questioned in Washington about the upward spiral of American deaths and the continuing conflict between Iraqis.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his questioning would focus on Maliki's decision to move forward with his offensive against militias in Basra without informing U.S. commanders in Baghdad about the details.

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who opposes Maliki's Shiite-dominated government and the ongoing U.S. presence in Iraq, says the offensive unfairly targeted his Mahdi Army militia, and he has rejected Maliki's demands to disarm his fighters.

"I'm going to want a lot of details about the Basra operation," Levin said. "We ended up sending in support in the middle of their sectarian conflict."

Military officers based in Baghdad acknowledged that the steady decline in violence over the last year, which Petraeus is expected to illustrate through his now-ubiquitous charts, will be marred by the latest developments.

Last year was the deadliest for Americans since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. The latest clashes have overshadowed six months of security gains and have probably dashed any hopes of withdrawing more U.S. forces after July, when the extra 28,500 troops are to go home. They have also shown that Iraq's deadly rivalries extend far beyond Sunnis versus Shiites.

Moreover, deadlines set for political benchmarks in Iraq, such as rewriting the constitution or legislation to manage the oil industry, have been missed.

An aide to presidential candidate Obama said the Illinois senator intended to press the general on the inter-Shiite violence sparked by the Basra campaign.

In Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, where Sadr's militia holds sway, fighting to dislodge gunmen from the dusty alleyways and dilapidated buildings had left at least 41 Iraqis dead and 185 wounded since Sunday, hospital officials said. They included 16 killed Monday.

Thousands of Sadr City residents were fleeing to the relative safety of neighboring areas. A driving ban for Sadr City remained in place, leaving residents no choice but to pile bundles onto their heads or under their arms and trek past U.S. and Iraqi armored vehicles stationed on the edge of the sprawling neighborhood in east Baghdad.

Some carried coffins and loaded them into trucks waiting outside Sadr City, which were driven to the holy city of Najaf for burial services. The area of Sadr City known as Section 8, where most residents bring the bodies of their loved ones for the traditional pre-burial washing, was so dangerous that another spot was set up elsewhere and quickly became crowded with the dead.

Saad Mohammed was among those being buried Monday. A friend, Wisam Kadhim, said Mohammed was mortally wounded in a U.S. airstrike Sunday and had left behind a wife and two children.

"His family couldn't make a funeral for him, so we, his friends, made a small funeral," Kadhim said. Few people showed up, he said, because they feared being caught in crossfire.

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Lt. Col. Steven Stover, rejected Iraqi allegations that U.S. airstrikes and gunfire have killed mainly civilians.

"There might be some civilians that are getting caught, but for the most part, we're killing the bad guys.

"We're very precise," he said, adding that many airstrikes had been called off when it was not possible to get a "clean hit" that would avoid hitting noncombatants.

The latest U.S. casualties brought to at least 4,023 the number of American forces killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion, according to www.icasualties.org. Eleven troops have died so far this month, including at least three in rocket attacks on U.S. bases.

U.S. military officials said the casualties were not so much the result of accurate firing as they were of the number of attacks being launched. "If you shoot enough rockets, eventually you will hit a valuable target, which for us is people, not structures," said a senior American military official in Baghdad.

The huge Jamila wholesale market in Sadr City was in flames Monday afternoon after an apparently errant mortar strike. Police said firefighters would not drive to the area because they were afraid of being caught in fighting. Other mortar rounds fell short of their targets and landed in residential or commercial districts.

"They're basically firing at a target. They don't always hit it - I doubt they tried to hit the Jamila market, but they did," Stover said. "They're killing innocent Iraqis, but at the same time they're hitting the government and they're hitting our ... bases."

Despite the increase in violence, U.S. officials have been quick to emphasize that areas outside Baghdad's Shiite strongholds and Basra have remained relatively calm. They portray this as a promising sign that support for the Shiite militias is limited and that Sunni Arab insurgents are not using the unrest to launch fresh attacks of their own against the Shiite-led government or its American allies.

They also say it shows improvements in the Iraqi security forces, whose performance is sure to be an issue during the congressional hearings.

Iraq's military and police face more challenges in the coming days. Today is the deadline that Maliki had set for militiamen to hand in heavy weapons. Sadr has urged followers to ignore the order and has called on millions of Shiites to march Wednesday in protest of Maliki's U.S.-backed government and the American military occupation.

In Basra, residents stocked up on food and other essentials as tension rose in anticipation of a curfew as security forces attempt to enforce the disarmament order. So far, U.S. and Iraqi military officials have not reported any substantial disarmament.

"People are rushing to buy foodstuffs to have in storage in case any armed activities happen after the deadline given to gunmen," said shop owner Qassim Bijari.

A taxi driver, Hashim Hamad Basri, said he had spent the day shuttling worried shoppers to and from markets and that he had bought more than $100 in groceries.

Late Saturday, a government council of political and security leaders said all militias must disarm if they want to take part in provincial elections planned for October. Maliki took that further Sunday in an interview with CNN, when he specifically named the Mahdi Army. Until then, he had avoided appearing to target the group and had said his offensive was aimed at "criminal elements" and rogue militiamen.

Sadr says Maliki is trying to crush his movement before the October vote, and aides Monday dismissed Maliki's threat of barring militia members from the election.

"Participation in the elections is a right guaranteed by the Iraqi Constitution to us and others," said Liwa Sumaysim, a Sadr legal aide in Najaf. "We decide if we want to participate or not."

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