BAGHDAD, Iraq—For the second time in two weeks, U.S. and Iraqi forces backed by helicopter gunships and mortar fire stormed the central Baghdad neighborhood astride Haifa Street in an effort to uproot suspected Sunni Muslim insurgents.
Army Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, a spokesman for the multi-national forces in Baghdad, said the objectives were to clear the area of insurgents, recover weapons caches and restore order. "We're optimistic that in short order we're going to be able to turn full control over to the Iraqis," he said.
However, the use of Apache helicopters and mortars so soon after a similar assault on the same neighborhood Jan. 9 suggested that uprooting armed groups in Baghdad won't be easy, even with the additional 17,500 U.S. troops President Bush is sending to the Iraqi capital. It also underscored how hard it is for American troops to restore order without getting embroiled in Iraq's sectarian civil war.
A Sunni organization called the Haifa Street operation "genocide", and Sunni residents of the neighborhood said the attack capped a terrifying two-week siege by mostly Shiite Iraqi government forces that stayed behind when American troops withdrew after the first offensive.
A man who gave his name as Omar Abu Khatab, a 24-year-old day laborer, pleaded for help when a reporter reached him by phone.
"We have many people wounded and badly injured and we have also people killed. We want someone to help us bury them, but we cannot get any help," he said. "We don't have any food or water. Until now, 16 days under this curfew and we cannot go out."
The area, blocks from the heavily fortified Green Zone where U.S. and Iraqi officials live and work, is too dangerous for journalists to assess independently, but Apache helicopters could be seen flying over the area, and explosions reverberated throughout central Baghdad.
The military said one U.S. soldier was killed and two were wounded in a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation, but didn't specify whether the casualties took place in the Haifa Street action or elsewhere.
Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said that 30 armed men were killed and 34 were arrested in the Haifa Street action, including six Egyptians and a Sudanese. A large weapons cache was uncovered in a high school, he said.
Sunni leaders have warned that the new U.S. strategy in Baghdad, under which U.S. troops will be used primarily against Sunni insurgents while Iraqi troops will be responsible for disarming Shiite militias, will lead to U.S. complicity in Shiite efforts to force Sunnis from the city.
Residents of the Sunni neighborhood and Sunni leaders said that with the Iraqi government largely controlled by the majority Shiites and security forces infiltrated by Shiite militia members, Iraqi Army snipers had kept them pinned down from rooftop positions for two weeks.
A man who called himself Abu Ali but declined to give his full name said the trouble began shortly after the Jan. 9 assault.
"The Americans left; only the Iraqi forces stayed in Haifa," he said. "There were snipers on the buildings, Iraqi Army snipers. It kept people home because they shot two people that tried to go out to the street. They burned four buildings. They closed the area, which left the families with no food—we had to share with others what we had."
In a statement designed to stress U.S. neutrality in the battle between Sunnis and Shiites, the U.S. military said its mission on Haifa Street "is not an operation designed to solely target Sunni insurgents, but rather aimed at rapidly isolating all active insurgents and gaining control of this key central Baghdad location."
Bleichwehl, the coalition forces spokesman, said that no innocent civilians were targeted.
"They weren't shooting at anybody that wasn't shooting at them," he said. Speaking for both the American and Iraqi forces, he said, "Our units do not target civilians in any way, shape or form."
Abu Ali said he managed to escape from the neighborhood a couple of days ago. He said that friends and relatives who're still there told him that Wednesday's assault began at around 4 a.m., the time given by Bleichwehl. Mortars fired into the neighborhood, Abu Ali said. The residents thought they came from a neighboring Shiite area, he said, and as the Americans moved in, the mortars stopped firing.
Bleichwehl said that U.S. forces fired one mortar round into the neighborhood in response to mortar attacks on U.S. forces, and that attack helicopters were called in after some initial engagements.
Abu Ali said the Haifa Street neighborhood, with its rows of apartment houses, was a magnet for foreigners during Saddam Hussein's regime, including thousands of Syrians, most of whom are still there. Egyptians and Sudanese were often employed as security guards, he said.
"They always accuse the Arabs on Haifa Street of being terrorists," Abu Ali said.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Leila Fadel, special correspondent Shatha al Awsy and a special correspondent who cannot be identified for security reasons contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.