THE WASHINGTON TIMES
BAGHDAD — American troops clashed with Shi’ite militiamen yesterday in southwest Baghdad in what a U.S. general called a defining battle in the fight for security in the capital.
By nightfall, residents said, families were hiding in their houses, huddled in the dark in whatever room was the farthest from the street in case the armed militia made good on shouted vows of revenge.
“We woke up at 4:30 a.m. with two huge explosions, then we started hearing a firefight with hundreds of bullets being fired. It was like a war, and it came from all sides of the street,” said one young man in the southwest Baghdad neighborhood of al Elam. He would identify himself only as Amer.
Minutes afterward, perched on the roof, he saw three men running down the street.
“They set down a mortar launcher stand just 10 [yards] from my house and launched two or three mortars, then threw it aside and ran down the alley,” Amer said.
Two minutes later, American forces with flashlights came running and shouting down the street, followed by an armored personnel carrier.
“I ducked down because I was afraid they would shoot me, and I saw them go down an alley and I heard about 20 bullets,” he said.
The U.S. military has deployed an additional 3,700 troops of the 172nd Stryker Brigade combat team and the Iraqis an extra 6,000 troops to Baghdad to put an end to the widespread violence in the city.
The latest fight to clear the city of militia and insurgents comes amid reports by the Reuters news agency that nearly 2,000 bodies were taken to the city morgue in July alone — most of them shot or beaten to death.
A United Nations estimate said 6,000 were killed in May and June.
“Taking weapons off the street remains vital if we’re going to establish peace here in the Baghdad area,” Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters yesterday.
The general said additional forces would help with the neighborhood-to-neighborhood operation, which was expected to last five months.
Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli told ABC News on Tuesday: “This is the defining battle of this particular campaign. We’ve got to take back Baghdad.”
Much of the fighting in recent days has involved the black-clad Mahdi militia, who support radical anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
Amer said that after the initial burst of fighting, things quieted down by 5 a.m. At 7:30 a.m., his father-in-law opened the front door, but neighbors shouted to get back inside because U.S. soldiers were spread around the street, guns at the ready.
“At almost 9 a.m. we heard this ‘whoosh,’ and then a boom and a mortar hit the ground. Then we heard about 12 or 13 of them. I have no idea where they hit, but the Americans went fast with their cars from place to place,” Amer said.
Calm returned to the neighborhood by 1:30 p.m., he said. People began coming out of their homes to see what had happened, when suddenly a large group of Mahdi militia carrying light and heavy machine guns entered the area, some dressed in black, others in jogging suits.
“They spread out into the neighborhood. Everything went quiet. Then we heard a big bomb — a huge blast — and the Americans started shooting everywhere,” he said.
Neighbors called Amer to warn him that they had heard militiamen telling residents not to go outside last night because they were going to take revenge on U.S. forces.
“From the roof of my house I cannot see the Americans, but from what I hear they are on the main streets,” he said.
“It is a dead city now. … All the lights of the houses are off, and the only thing moving are cats.
“Each family is packed into one room, the farthest from the street, in case of an explosion or raid. There is no electricity, no generators, nothing running.
“I believe something will happen tonight,” he said.
The name of the reporter has been withheld for his protection and for the safety of his family.