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Residents say snipers are firing at random as siege continues

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The two top U.S. officials in Iraq voiced confidence Monday that Iraq's Shiite Muslim-led government would show no favoritism in its efforts to secure the city, even as residents of a Sunni Muslim neighborhood complained that Shiite Iraqi security forces and government-backed militias were preventing them from evacuating wounded and going for food.

Eight days after a joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive began to take control of the Haifa Street area in central Baghdad, residents said they had no water and no electricity and that people seeking food had been shot at random. They said they could see American soldiers nearby, but that the Americans were making no effort to intervene.

"The Americans are doing nothing, as if they are backing the militias," said one resident, who asked to be identified only as Abu Sady, 36, for security reasons. "This military siege is killing us. ... If this plan continues for one more week, I don't think you will find one family left on Haifa Street."

U.S. officials downplayed the reports. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army Gen. George Casey told a news conference Monday that Iraqi officials had assured them that they'd target both Shiite and Sunni extremists in their efforts to pacify the city.

"I am encouraged by what I have seen. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt and let's see what happens," Khalilzad said. If sectarian problems arise, "that will be a conversation down the road. I hope it will be unnecessary. At this point, what we are focused on is to help implement the plan based on the premises we agreed on."

A U.S. military spokesman said he had no reason to believe Haifa Street residents' accounts. The residents were interviewed by phone because of the danger in reaching the area.

"The reporting we have is that it was quiet on Haifa Street," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the 1st Cavalry Division, which patrols Haifa Street. "We have nothing in our reporting to substantiate those claims."

Sunni residents have worried that the Bush administration's decision to send 17,500 more soldiers to Baghdad to combat Sunni insurgents under a new security plan will enable the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to force Sunnis out of their neighborhoods with American assistance. Many refer to the Haifa Street fighting as the first effort of that plan.

The newest plan is at least the sixth designed to bring peace to the capital. All have failed.

"We have been here before," Casey said.

But he added that he was optimistic that the new effort would be more successful because there was more Iraqi "buy-in," due to the Iraqi government being in charge of the plan.

With "sustained political support, and the concentrated efforts on all sides, I believe that this plan can work, " Casey said.

The plan, which President Bush spelled out last Wednesday in a nationally televised address, calls for U.S. troops to work side by side with their Iraqi counterparts in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep of the capital. At the same time, the Iraqi government, with the help of the U.S., has pledged to pump $10 billion in aid into the city's economy, creating jobs and rebuilding infrastructure.

Bush said Iraqi officials also had committed to resolving key disputes that fueled sectarian tensions, such as how the nation should split oil revenues, how to integrate some members of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party into the government and how to fix problems with the constitution.

Casey said Monday that it would take months to measure whether the plan was working.

On Haifa Street, residents said they were already concerned about its results.

Iraqi troops, backed by American helicopters and jet fighters, moved into Haifa Street last week in what Iraqi officials said was a campaign to rid the area of al-Qaida and Sunni insurgents, who'd been welcomed by residents who were former Baath party members.

Residents said then that the Iraqi army moved in only after they'd repulsed efforts to take over the neighborhood by members of the Mahdi Army militia, which is loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sadr controls the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament and is a major backer of Maliki.

A 44-year-old Haifa Street resident who asked to be identified only as Abu Mohammed for security reasons said that only three or four families of an estimated 60 families remained on his block. He said no vehicles were allowed to drive through the area and that there was no electricity, kerosene or running water. Snipers have taken positions on the rooftops.

"They are shooting randomly," he said. "Today, they shot Raghad Marwan, a 28-year-old young woman who was trying to get food. She got a bullet in her shoulder, and now we don't know how to get her to the hospital."

He said several families were evacuating the neighborhood: "I can see the families with their children walking in the narrow streets of the neighborhood taking nothing but small bags."

"The new security plan has given militias permission to go into our houses and apartments and kill people," Abu Mohammed said. "This plan targets Sunnis and forces them to leave their homes. And they are."


(Obeid is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent in Baghdad.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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