BAGHDAD, Iraq—The back alleys and dense apartment buildings of Baghdad's Haifa Street once were all the protection that Saad Jameel needed after he lobbed grenades at Iraqi policemen or fired machine-gun rounds at American convoys.
He'd strike at will, dip into a warren of bullet-pocked storefronts and hide among neighbors he's known all his life. Confident and safe, Jameel sometimes chuckled as the troops he'd just ambushed fired blindly at an attacker who was long gone.
One day last month, however, Jameel's name turned up on a most-wanted list broadcast on al Iraqiya, Iraq's state-run television channel. He was amazed at how much the authorities knew about him: his leadership of an insurgent cell on Haifa Street, his involvement in a string of attacks on Iraqi security forces, even his aliases.
Jameel's safe zone crumbled as the U.S. and Iraqi forces he'd battled went on the offensive with patrols, mass arrests and a hot line for informants. He fled his neighborhood, his cell was paralyzed and half his men were taken into custody.
For the first time, Jameel conceded in an interview last week with Knight Ridder, insurgents along Baghdad's meanest street are feeling squeezed.
"Four of my partners were captured, and they told the police my name during confessions," Jameel said, shaking his head. "Our cell was raided, our top guy is in American custody, and I told my men to tell people looking for me that I'm in Egypt. We're lying low, but we're still ready."
The disruption of Jameel's cell—as well as the recent arrests of suspected financiers, kidnappers and gunmen—has brought an uneasy calm to Haifa Street.
Last week, schoolgirls skipped home from class yards from where three Iraqi election workers were executed in morning traffic just a few weeks ago. Old graffiti that read "Long live the resistance!" was joined by freshly painted slogans such as "The Iraqi Army is the People's Army." Not a single American or Iraqi soldier was in sight.
All but one section of the main drag is open to traffic now, though few motorists risk driving along it.
Nobody claims victory yet. But in a war where battles are fought block by block and triumphs are often fleeting, even temporary quiet along a single notorious street is good news.
"Anybody who's watched Haifa Street as long and as hard as I have evolve over time cannot deny that the conditions on Haifa Street have improved dramatically," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, which controlled Baghdad until this past week.
Before the war, Haifa Street was an inviting area along the west bank of the Tigris River in the heart of the capital. Low-rent apartments were filled with students from other Arab countries, who mixed easily with the area's Sunni and Shiite Muslim residents. Jameel, the Sunni insurgent who's now in hiding, recalled a street where birds chirped from palm trees and families strolled after dark with streetlamps lighting the way.
Jameel said the fierce anti-American resistance sprang up on Haifa Street only after an elderly resident and his grandson were crushed to death last year by an American armored vehicle. U.S. officials said they couldn't verify the account, and Iraqi officials blamed foreign fighters pushed out of other areas north and west of the capital.
Whatever the spark, Haifa Street erupted.
Jameel, a bulky 36-year-old, joined a nationalist group with Islamist leanings whose name he won't reveal. Some of his friends were recruited into cells of Tawhid and Jihad, the prototype of what's now al-Qaida's Iraq branch. The group's trademark black banners have flown on Haifa Street after particularly bloody attacks.
The labyrinth of tiny shops and teahouses just behind the main street became a weapons bazaar, Jameel said, with criminal gangs supplying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and anti-tank mines to local fighters.
The street became the scene of car bombings, ambushes and countless roadside bombs. Insurgents began cutting down men who joined the Iraqi security forces or who worked in the nearby Green Zone, the fortress-like compound that houses American and Iraqi government headquarters.
The U.S. military set up rooftop sniper positions and cordoned off the neighborhood. Foreigners and Iraqis from other neighborhoods steered clear.
The violence culminated in a September showdown that started with the bombing of a U.S. armored vehicle and ended with an American helicopter firing into a crowd of civilians at the scene, killing a TV journalist and 12 other people and wounding more than 60. The incident drew public outrage over the civilian deaths and, Jameel said, made recruiting much easier for the insurgency.
Jameel boasted of several small-scale ambushes he helped carry out on Haifa Street after that incident, but he was adamant that his group had nothing to do with the most chilling attack. In late December, gunmen swarmed a car carrying three Iraqi election workers, dragged them out into the street and shot them to death in front of terrified drivers during the morning rush hour.
That incident appears to have prompted the crackdown that drove Jameel underground and resulted in the arrests of two others who he said had close ties to the Haifa Street insurgency. The first was Syed Hashim, an alleged cell leader who was picked up in a brothel in a neighboring district, said Col. Adnan Abdulrahman, an Iraqi police spokesman. The second was Sabah al Baldawi, who police say is an organized-crime boss accused of funneling money and weapons to Haifa Street fighters.
Al Baldawi's attorney, who said his client was transferred recently from Iraqi to U.S. custody for interrogation, complained that the crackdown was overzealous and would only inflame a street that had been calming down.
"The only thing my client has to do with Haifa Street is that he happens to live there," said the attorney, who asked that his name not be published for security reasons. "This whole thing was made up by Iraqi security forces trying to prove themselves."
Jameel admitted that the arrests were a setback, but said he hadn't given up the fight.
"The Americans have been here two years now, and what did they do for us?" he asked. "Haifa Street was quiet before they came. We're quiet again for now, but we will continue to fight as long as the Americans stay. We are patient, and there's no escape for them."
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Yasser Salihee contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050304 USIRAQ INSURGENT
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Haifa Street