Thu, Jan 25, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Troops battle Iraqi militia

AFP AND AP , BAGHDAD

Mortar blasts thundered across central Baghdad yesterday as Iraqi and US forces fought insurgents in a Sunni bastion.

Iraqi and US troops backed by Apache helicopter gunships initiated "Operation Tomahawk Strike 11" on Haifa Street, Iraq's defense ministry said.

The Sunni Arab bastion was the site of three previous battles this month, including one on Jan. 9 that involved 1,000 US and Iraqi troops and in which Iraqi defense sources said 50 insurgents were killed.

Yesterday, a steady barrage of machine-gun and mortar fire echoed for around three hours, followed by a lull and then sporadic fire by both light and heavy weapons.

A US military statement said the operation included "targeted raids to disrupt illegal militia activity and help restore Iraq security force control in the area."

The offensive combined Iraqi army and police forces with elements of the US 1st Cavalry Division and a Stryker combat brigade.

It did not solely target Sunni insurgents, "but rather aimed at rapidly isolating all active insurgents and gaining control of this key central Baghdad location," the statement said.

Iraqi security officials said the US aircraft were reported to have provided cover fire for the joint force.

Six "terrorists" and three other suspects were arrested and large caches of weapons seized inside al-Karkh Middle School, which is located on Haifa Street, a defense ministry source said.

Haifa Street lies within 2km of the heavily fortified Green Zone, the seat of the Iraqi government and US embassy.

Meanwhile south of the capital, Iraq's minister of higher education survived an ambush yesterday as he traveled to work, though one of his bodyguards was killed, a security source said.

Abed Dhiab al-Ujaili was in a convoy of cars on a highway which crosses the al-Buetha region when it was attacked, the source said.

"Coalition forces regret the death and strive to mitigate risks to civilians while in pursuit of terrorists," a military statement said.

North of Baghdad, US forces raided what it said was "a known terrorist safe house" and captured three suspects, but killed a 12-year-old boy.

On Tuesday, a helicopter owned by the US security firm Blackwater USA crashed in Baghdad, killing five people, a US defense official said.

The crash was clouded in confusion, with an Iraqi military official saying four of the men had been shot execution-style on the ground.

"We had a very bad day yesterday," US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters at a roundtable discussion at the embassy in the Green Zone in Baghdad. "We lost five fine men."

Khalilzad did not give more details, saying the crash was still under investigation and it was difficult to know exactly what happened because of "the fog of war."

An embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, said three helicopters belonging to the security company Blackwater USA were involved. One had landed for an unknown reason and one of the Blackwater employees was shot at that point, he said.

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