Guerrilla fighters ambushed two U.S. convoys in the troubled Euphrates River region west of Baghdad on Monday, sparking one of the heaviest engagements yet in an area known for its deep resentment of the U.S.-led occupation -- an eight-hour battle in which the Americans unleashed heavy weapons and helicopters.
At least one U.S. soldier was killed and two were injured, according to a military spokesman in Baghdad. One civilian also was killed, and witnesses and news reports said that at least a dozen Iraqis were taken prisoner. The soldier who died was from the 82nd Airborne Division.
As part of an escalating pattern of raids and guerrilla attacks in the so-called Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad, U.S. troops and American-trained Iraqi police also detained 92 people and seized a large weapons cache in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. There are daily attacks on U.S. soldiers in the Sunni Triangle, and supporters of Hussein are believed to be operating in the region.
In Fallouja, the nearest large city to Monday’s fighting, fresh graffiti declares that stealing from Americans or even killing them is permitted by Islam.
Guerrilla attacks and U.S. raids and counterattacks appear to be increasing as each side better understands the other’s tactics. But much remained unclear about Monday’s fighting, including how big the guerrilla force was, and why it engaged the Americans in a pitched battle instead of melting away.
The fighting began with an attack on a U.S. convoy crossing the Euphrates near the resort town of Habbaniyah. Lt. Col. George Krivo, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said one soldier was killed in that attack and another was wounded.
Soon after, a roadside bomb exploded in Khaldiyah, about half an hour to the west, igniting the eight-hour battle between guerrillas and U.S. troops, Associated Press reported.
Neshed Naif, 22, a local lawyer who said he watched from a distance, reported that the guerrillas used rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and a primitive type of antiaircraft missile. Other Khaldiyah residents said the Americans called in helicopters, tanks and armored personnel carriers.
At dusk, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter could be seen flying toward the area of conflict and scattered gunfire could still be heard. Walid Khalid Zedan, 20, described the day as “total chaos; we heard airplanes, helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles.” He added that a neighborhood appeared to have been shelled by the tanks.
The most recent string of violent incidents in the area began Sept. 12 when U.S. troops, apparently believing they were in danger, fired on a convoy carrying Iraqi law enforcement personnel, killing eight of them and a Jordanian working at a hospital nearby. Since then there have been several Iraqi attacks on U.S. soldiers and American counterattacks.
In both Habbaniyah and Khaldiyah, anger toward the Americans is palpable.
Tribal, agrarian and isolated, these Euphrates villages are places where outsiders are viewed with distrust. Many of the men lack jobs, fueling their frustration as well as their fury at the Americans, who they had believed would solve all their problems.
Further complicating matters is that in areas of significant resistance and multiple attacks on American forces, U.S. troops conduct more raids, inflicting more damage and prompting more resentment.
In a group of seven men repairing a car as night fell on Khaldiyah, three said they had relatives who had been injured or killed by American fire. One said he had lost his 14-year-old son several months earlier near Fallouja, and when he began to talk about it, he broke down and turned away.
The men said they couldn’t understand why U.S. troops had responded with such force on Monday. Khalid Zedan Nasser, 40, said he believed that the Americans thought Hussein was in the area.
“They have information that Saddam is in there,” he said, but added: “Why would Saddam come over here?” Like several in the group, he said that whenever the Americans were attacked in this area, “they come over here and start shooting randomly.”
“They are frustrated and vicious,” he said.
Ahmed Khalif Abdullah, 30, a taxi driver who stopped to talk with the men repairing the car, was unabashed in his support for Hussein. “Everybody wants Saddam back. At least we had security,” he said.
He complained that he had been unable to get a woman in labor to a hospital recently because U.S. troops wouldn’t let him pass.
“It was the middle of the night and they wouldn’t let me through,” he said. “She ended up going to a midwife.”
In Habbaniyah, a group of men -- most of them unemployed, their faces closed and angry -- stood in the shade of a small reed kiosk where at one time merchants sold biscuits and sodas. In the nearby fields, which are watered by the Euphrates, rice, tomatoes and beans are common crops.
“The Americans start shooting randomly as soon as they are attacked,” said one of the men, Nadhim Ahmad, 26, who works odd jobs in construction.
“No matter how powerful they are, we have to get them out of here; we want to crush them underfoot.” He rubbed his plastic sandal hard into the dust to demonstrate what he meant.
Hours earlier, troops from the 4th Infantry Division staged two dozen lightning raids overnight, mainly in and around Tikrit, which has been a major staging ground for Fedayeen fighters still loyal to the fugitive Iraqi leader.
Maj. Gordon Tate, a spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division, said 92 suspects were detained and weapons and ammunition including assault rifles, mortars, firing tubes, rocket launchers and artillery shells were seized.
More than 200 U.S.-trained Iraqi police, together with troops from the 720th Military Police Battalion, took part in the raids, marking it as the largest joint U.S.-Iraqi operation to date. U.S. officials said the raids were the result of information from Iraqi tipsters -- an indication, they said, that even in pro-Hussein hotbeds like Tikrit, many ordinary citizens blame the resistance fighters for setting off a wave of violence in and around the city.
Two weeks ago, Americans suffered three combat deaths in an ambush by Iraqi guerrillas just outside Tikrit. Nine Iraqis were killed in subsequent U.S. raids and counterattacks.
Four Iraqis were killed late last week in a shooting at a U.S. military checkpoint near Fallouja. A 15-year-old who survived said the pickup truck that was carrying him, his parents and grandmother was slowing to stop at the checkpoint when the Americans began shooting. A man on a motorcycle was also killed. U.S. troops said they came under fire from an approaching van and retaliated.
On Saturday, U.S. troops who raided a farm near Tikrit uncovered a weapons cache that included antiaircraft missiles and a type of explosive used to make the homemade bombs that are often used to attack American soldiers.
Rubin reported from Khaldiyah and King from Tikrit.