Wednesday, January 24, 2007

BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi troops clashed with gunmen firing heavy weapons from concrete high-rises in a Sunni insurgent stronghold north of the heavily fortified Green Zone yesterday. Iraqi’s Defense Ministry said as many as 30 militants were killed and 27 captured.

Apache attack helicopters buzzed past the tall buildings and radio towers, with several Humvees on the tree-lined street below. Gunfire rang in the background as shells fell, according to AP Television News footage.

Black smoke rose from the area, on the west bank of the Tigris River about one mile north of the Green Zone, site of the U.S. and British embassies as well as the Iraqi government headquarters. The clashes were the second major fighting to break out in the area in less than a month.

New details also emerged about the downing of a private U.S. security company helicopter on Tuesday, with U.S. and Iraqi officials saying four of five Americans who died in the incident were shot execution-style — in the back of the head.

A senior Iraqi military official said a machine gunner downed the helicopter, but a U.S. military official in Washington said there were no indications that the aircraft, owned by Blackwater USA, had been shot out of the sky. Two Sunni insurgent groups, separately, took responsibility for the crash.

A Sunni insurgent group called the Ansar al-Sunnah Army posted identity cards of men who were on the helicopter on a Web site, including at least two that bore the name of Arthur Laguna, who was later identified by his mother as among those killed.

Mr. Laguna, was a 52-year-old pilot for Blackwater who previously served in the Army and the California National Guard, said his mother, Lydia Laguna, of Rio Linda, Calif. She said she received a call from her other son, also a Blackwater pilot in Baghdad, notifying her of Mr. Laguana’s death.

There were conflicting numbers of insurgents reported killed and captured in yesterday’s fighting, which began before dawn. Iraq’s Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said 30 insurgents were killed and 27 arrested, including four Egyptians and a Sudanese man.

The U.S. military said seven suspected insurgents were detained, and rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank rounds and 155 mm artillery rounds were seized. The U.S. statement did not mention deaths.

The military reported separately that a U.S. soldier was killed yesterday in clashes near the city’s center. Officials declined to give more specifics or say whether it was connected to the Haifa Street fighting. The military also said that two Marines were killed Tuesday in western Anbar province.

U.S. and Iraqi troops are gearing up for a broader security crackdown to quell the sectarian violence in the capital. Mr. al-Askari said the fighting yesterday was not part of that plan.

Haifa Street has been the site of numerous clashes, including a major battle on Jan. 9, just three days after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced his new security plan for pacifying Baghdad.

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