Warplanes Strike Militant Stronghold in Baghdad

By Edmund Sanders

Los Angeles Times

September 28, 2004

BAGHDAD — U.S. military leaders in Iraq stepped up their campaign today to rout out insurgents, launching an airstrike in a restive slum of the nation's capital and killing 10 Iraqis, according to U.S. and hospital officials.

The use of warplanes to bomb targets in Shiite Muslim-dominated neighborhoods of Baghdad's Sadr City underscored the new resolve with which U.S. forces battle against insurgents. Such airstrikes have become increasingly commonplace in Sadr City, Fallouja and other regions where anti-American militants still control all or parts of the city.

The strikes also raise questions about whether a fragile peace agreement with forces loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr will hold. Tensions have been rising in recent days between Sadr's followers and U.S. forces in Sadr City and in the holy city of Najaf, where the two sides ended a bloody standoff in August.

Insurgents today also escalated their attacks against U.S. soldiers and Iraqi security forces, killing four Iraqi Nation al Guard members with a car bomb in Mosul.

Near Fallouja, a suicide attacker killed three more Iraqi guard members at a security checkpoint, police officials told the Associated Press.

And in Balad, north of Baghdad, a 1st Infantry Division soldier was killed Sunday morning when insurgents opened fire on his patrol, which was responding to a traffic accident that had killed another U.S. solider earlier that morning.

With few signs that the violence will end, U.S. military officials have been planning to accelerate efforts in coming months to crack down on insurgents. They hope to restore peace before national elections can take place, which are scheduled for January.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday that a "major thrust" of U.S. efforts in Iraq soon will be to eliminate so-called "no-go" areas, where insurgents still reign. The air attack in Sadr City early Monday was part of that new effort.

U.S. officials said they killed four insurgents and destroy ed several enemy positions with a "precision strike" on "positively identified targets." Witnesses said the attacks began about 1 a.m. and lasted several hours.

"We were terrified because the strikes were random," said Majeed Minshed, 23, a Sadr City resident. "By the time it was over, we did not believe we were still alive." Sabah Abaas, an emergency room medical assistant at Jawader Hospital, reported 10 fatalities and 71 injuries, including some women and children.

U.S. officials called reports of civilian casualties "suspect," but said they would investigate the claims. They suggested civilian deaths may have been caused by insurgents responding to the U.S. attack by firing four mortars at an American base shortly after the air strike began. Three of the mortars missed and landed outside of the base. One civilian vehicle was destroyed, military officials said.

"The enemy shows no concern for the Iraqi people, " said U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Hutton.

Rising civilian d eaths have put U.S. officials on the defensive. According to Iraqi Health Ministry officials, nearly 3,200 Iraqi civilians have died since April in terrorist attacks and clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents.

U.S. officials, however, insist that insurgents have exaggerated the toll. A senior military official called reports of civilian deaths in Fallouja "propaganda" and suggested that local hospitals have been infiltrated by insurgent forces.

"We have seen pictures (of injured people) but we can't authenticate that the individuals in the hospital are in the hospital because of (a U.S.) attack that day," the official said.

In Mosul today, insurgents again used a car bomb to target a passing convoy of Iraqi guards. In September alone, 34 car bombs have been detonated, the highest monthly number on record, officials said.

After the initial explosion, insurgents opened fire on the seven-vehicle convoy with machine guns, officials said.

In Baqubah, another insurgent st ronghold, a roadside bomb apparently intended for a U.S. military convoy exploded prematurely on Sunday, killing four civilians, according to the Associated Press.

Elsewhere, a kidnapped Iranian diplomat, Faridoun Jihani, was freed today, Iranian Embassy officials said in a statement. Jihani, who worked in the Iranian consul in Karbala, was abducted last month while driving between Baghdad and Karbala.

And Jordan King Abdullah II said that two Italian aide workers who were abducted and reported killed are, in fact, still alive. Negotiations continue for their release, he said.

An estimated 140 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq, including British businessman Kenneth Bigley, whose fate remains unclear. His family pleaded again today for his safe release, distributing leaflets and making radio appeals in Iraq.

Two of his American coworkers, Eugene "Jack" Armstrong and Jack Hensley, were beheaded. The men were believed to have been abducted by the terrorist group Tawhid and Ji had, led by Abu Musab Zarqawi.

A Times special correspondent in Sadr City contributed to this report.