State of Emergency Declared in Baghdad
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s government clamped a state of emergency on Baghdad and ordered everyone off the streets Friday after U.S. and Iraqi forces battled insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades and rifles near the heavily fortified Green Zone.
The military also announced the deaths of five more U.S. troops in a particularly violent week for American forces that included the discovery of the brutalized bodies of two soldiers. Twelve U.S. servicemembers have died or been found dead this week.
The fierce fighting in the heart of Baghdad came despite a crackdown launched 10 days ago that put tens of thousands of U.S.-backed Iraqi troops on the streets as the new prime minister sought to restore a modicum of safety for the capital’s 6 million people.
Iraqi and U.S. military forces clashed with heavily armed attackers throughout the morning Friday in the alleys and doorways along Haifa Street and within earshot of the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies and Iraqi government headquarters.
Four Iraqi soldiers and three policemen were wounded before the area was sealed and searched house-to-house for insurgent attackers, police Lt. Maitham Abdul Razzaq said. U.S. and Iraqi forces also engaged in firefights with insurgents in the dangerous Dora neighborhood in south Baghdad.
Deadly clashes are not new to Haifa Street, a thoroughfare so dangerous that a sign at one Green Zone exit checkpoint warns drivers against using the street. But Friday’s fighting was unusual in its scope and intensity, prompting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to order everyone off all streets in the capital with just two hours notice and while Friday prayers were still in progress.
Clusters of women shrouded in black head-to-toe robes scurried along to beat the ban, and U.S. soldiers frisked men also dashing home against a backdrop of thick, black smoke rising above the white high-rise buildings of Haifa Street.
Helicopters flitted back and forth overhead.
Haifa Street was the scene of some of the heaviest resistance when U.S. forces swept into Baghdad in March 2003, and it has remained difficult to control because many residents have natural links to the Sunni-led insurgency. It is lined with tall and relatively new buildings put up by former leader Saddam Hussein to house Syrian refugees loyal to him and members of his security forces.
Defense Ministry official Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Mohamed Jassim initially said all Baghdad residents must be off the streets from 2 p.m. until 6 a.m. Saturday, but al-Maliki later declared the ban would end just three hours after it began.
The state of emergency, which was to continue for an indefinite period, included a renewed prohibition on carrying weapons and gave Iraqi security forces broader arrest powers, Jassim said.
“The state of emergency and curfew came in the wake of today’s clashes to let the army work freely to chase militants and to avoid casualties among civilians,” he said. “They will punish all those who have weapons with them and they can shoot them if they feel that they are danger.”
The Shiite prime minister had already announced other tough security initiatives after taking office a month ago, when he vowed that Iraqi forces would be in charge of security nationwide within 18 months.
He declared a similar state of emergency in the increasingly volatile southern city of Basra at the beginning of June. The violence there continues, however.
A car bomb ripped through a market and nearby gas station in the predominantly Shiite city on Friday, killing at least five people and wounding 18, including two policemen, police said.
A bomb also struck a Sunni mosque in the town of Hibhib northeast of Baghdad, killing 10 worshippers and wounding 15. Al-Qaida chieftain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was slain there in a U.S. airstrike earlier this month.
At least 19 other deaths were reported in Baghdad. The bodies of five men apparently slain after a mass factory kidnapping Wednesday were among Friday’s toll. The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization linking seven insurgent groups including al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed it killed 81 workers who were “building a new American base.” It was not clear if the group was referring to the factory kidnap victims, and the Internet claim could not be independently verified.
The U.S. military also reported that two Multi-National Division-Baghdad soldiers were killed Friday morning when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb southeast of the capital. Earlier in the day, a separate military statement reported that two U.S. Marines were killed during combat in the volatile Anbar province in separate attacks on Wednesday and Thursday, and a soldier died elsewhere in a non-combat incident on Wednesday.
Those death announcements came a day after the military said five other U.S. troops were killed in operations south and west of Baghdad and three days after the bodies of two American soldiers who went missing after an attack on their checkpoint were recovered.
The U.S. military said Wednesday that one and possibly both of the soldiers were tortured and beheaded, and their bodies were sent to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for DNA testing.
At least 2,517 members of the U.S. military have died since the war started more than three years ago, according to an Associated Press count.
On the political front, a key politician said the Iraqi government will present a 28-point national reconciliation plan to parliament Sunday that would grant some insurgents amnesty and ask for approval of a series of steps for Iraqis to take over security from U.S. troops.
Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said the plan also would include a timeline for preparing Iraqi forces to take over security from U.S. forces.
That would fit with the overall U.S.-led coalition strategy to transfer security to Iraqi forces in certain regions while withdrawing to larger regional bases to stand ready to help in case of emergency. A final stage would involve the drawdown of U.S. troops from those bases.
“There is no finite and U.N.-approved timeline for the withdrawal of foreign troops, but there is a timeline to accomplish the readiness of Iraqi security forces to take over security in the country,” Othman said.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities also released 500 more detainees from American detention centers, the latest to be freed as part of al-Maliki’s promise to release 2,500 by month’s end as part of his reconciliation efforts.