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American forces and Iraqi insurgents fought running battles in the heart of Baghdad yesterday as the latest American losses brought the number of US soldiers killed in combat in Iraq since the invasion last year close to 1,000.
The battles erupted in the Haifa Street district only three blocks from the Green Zone, where the US administration and the interim government have their headquarters. Shooting began when insurgents appeared on the streets looking for Iraqis who co-operate with US forces. The gunmen killed one man as a collaborator and then exchanged fire with US troops in armoured vehicles.
Security in Baghdad is now so bad that when Robert Hill, the Australian Defence Minister, landed at Baghdad airport last week it was deemed too dangerous for him to travel along the airport road to Baghdad. He was unable to visit the Australian embassy.
The number of US soldiers killed in action in Iraq since the invasion on 19 March last year had reached 998 early yesterday morning, according to the Defence Department in Washington. A further 5,049 soldiers have been seriously wounded and 4,503 slightly wounded in fighting; another 272 have died in “non-hostile” incidents.
The US losses have risen inexorably despite supposed turning points such as the capture of Saddam Hussein last December and the transfer of sovereignty to an interim government this June. There is no reason to suppose that the election on 30 January will lead to reduced violence. The main Shia parties, and some smaller Kurdish, Turkoman and Sunni groups, agreed yesterday to be called the United Iraq Alliance to contest the election.
The hopes of US generals that capturing Fallujah, the main rebel stronghold, last month would break the back of the insurgency have been dissipated by heavy fighting in other parts of central and northern Iraq. Eleven US soldiers have been killed in combat since last Friday.
In apparent recognition of how dangerous it is for American soldiers on the roads of Iraq, the US military inflicted only minor punishments yesterday on 18 soldiers who disobeyed orders on 13 October to drive unarmoured fuel tankers from Nasariyah in southern Iraq to Taji, north of Baghdad.
Iraqis aiding the occupation in any way are being targeted. Seven men machine-gunned a bus carrying Iraqi employees of a US base on Sunday, killing 17. The Ansar al-Sunnah Army claimed responsibility for the attack on its website. “We tell all of those who work with the crusaders: ‘This is your fate sooner or later. We’re setting up ambushes for you. Repent to save your lives’,” it said.
Insurgents have made repeated attacks in the past two weeks in Baghdad and in towns along the Tigris. The uprising has intensified in Mosul, a city of 1.2 million people in northern Iraq, where guerrillas launched an offensive last month in which they took over most of the city for a week. A 5,000-strong police force there disintegrated.
The insurgents say they are trying to avoid mistakes made by fighters in Fallujah who fought back despite massive US superiority. By contrast, in Mosul, the guerrillas printed flyers telling their men: “Hide your weapons and disperse.”
The resistance is led by a group called the Higher Committee of the Mujahedin, formed from six other groups including the al-Qa’ida Group of Jihad in the Country of the Two Rivers, though its connection with al-Qa’ida is unclear. The fighters are either former Baathists or Islamic militants.
Earlier this year, US intelligence officers in Mosul predicted serious trouble if Iraqis fighting the occupation joined forces with those who were against Saddam Hussein. This now seems to have happened.
To avoid alienating locals, especially Christians who are numerous in Mosul, resistance leaders have not forced alcohol shops to close. In Fallujah, CD, musical-instrument shops, hair-dressers and coffee shops had all been forced to close.
The resistance has also reportedly launched a campaign against criminals, releasing a video showing the beheading of three men who had kidnapped a Christian shopkeeper. A ransom was repaid.