Fiercest fighting in Baghdad since crackdown

By Dean Yates, Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD - US and Iraqi forces backed by attack helicopters fought gunmen in Baghdad in a day-long battle today, in the fiercest fighting in the capital since a major security crackdown was launched in February.

The US military said four Iraqi soldiers were killed and 16 American soldiers wounded. Three gunmen were killed, it said in a statement. Police said 10 people had died.

Two helicopters were also hit by ground fire but both returned to base, the US military said.

Northeast of Baghdad, a female suicide bomber strapped with explosives under her traditional dress killed 17 recruits outside a police station in the town of Muqdadiya, police said.

Two witnesses including a local journalist said Apache attack helicopters hovering low over the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fadhil in Baghdad repeatedly fired rockets at buildings where gunmen had holed up.

The military statement said one helicopter had attacked gunmen with machinegun fire.

The witnesses said they saw several bodies lying in a street, with residents too afraid to move them. Other bodies had been moved to a local mosque, said the local journalist, Abu Omar, who is a resident of Fadhil.

US military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver said an Apache and a Black Hawk transport helicopter had been struck by small arms fire. No crew members were hurt, the military said.

The two-month-old Baghdad offensive is regarded as a last-ditch attempt to halt Iraq's slide into an all-out sectarian war between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs who were dominant under Saddam Hussein.

Until now gunmen have stuck to hit-and-run attacks or used roadside bombs to target US and Iraqi forces during the security crackdown.

US President George W. Bush is sending 30,000 more troops to Iraq, mainly for Baghdad, the epicenter of Iraq's violence.

Bush said on Tuesday that stepping back from Baghdad before Iraq's security forces were ready would have left a vacuum that could have been filled by hardline Sunnis and Shi'ites.

"There are extremists who can't stand the thought of a free society. They would have taken advantage of the vacuum. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country. And in time the violence could affect the entire region," Bush said in a speech in Fairfax, Virginia.

No timetables

Bush said that setting timetables for withdrawing US forces from Iraq, as sought by the Democratic-controlled Congress, would undermine the Baghdad security plan.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters during a visit to Tokyo that he also saw no need to set a timetable.

"We are working strongly in order to build forces in the fastest time possible so we can exercise our right in asking the multi-national forces to leave Iraq, which is better than the issues being tied to a timetable," he said.

Journalist Abu Omar said the operation in Fadhil started before dawn.

He said he saw helicopters rocket a number of buildings while gunmen armed with belt-fed machine guns roamed the streets. The second witness said he saw one US helicopter fly off trailing smoke.

Both said fighting later shifted out of Fadhil into neighboring Sheikh Omar and Bab al-Muadham district.

Police said 33 people were wounded in the bomb attack in Muqdadiya, 90 km from Baghdad. It was the first major attack on volunteers for local security forces this year.

"I was heading to work when I saw this ball of flame between a crowd of people. I saw many people on the ground. Many had lost their limbs," said one witness who declined to be named.

Four US soldiers were also killed on Monday, putting April on course to be the deadliest for troops this year.

The latest deaths bring to about 45 the number of US troops killed in Iraq this month, half of them in the Baghdad area. Between 80 and 85 soldiers were killed in each of the first three months of the year, according to military figures.

- REUTERS

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