U.S., Iraqi troops face test at battle of Creek Road
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The fighters came across the stinking creek and within hours they had overrun three Iraqi army checkpoints. U.S. forces rushed to help Iraqi troops regroup.
The battle of Creek Road in Baghdad formed just a small part of the fight that raged for days across Iraq last week and then ended as suddenly as it began.
Last week's upsurge in fighting in Iraq began with a crackdown launched by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Basra against followers of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
But its sudden spread throughout other southern towns and neighborhoods of Baghdad that are Sadr strongholds, quickly turned it into a nationwide crisis on a scale Iraq had not seen since at least the first half of last year.
There are now few signs left of the fighting, which ended with a ceasefire announced by Sadr on Sunday.
"This road we're going down -- every alley we were fired on. And then: nothing. Kids playing soccer. This place is surreal," said Lieutenant-Colonel Kevin Petit, whose U.S. squadron patrols the neighborhood of Ghazaliya, across the creek from the bustling militia stronghold of Shula.
Iraqi troops are back in control of the checkpoints. The markets on the opposite side of the creek are again open, although the only bridge across it is still shut to cars.
Children play in a freshly dug mud-hole next to the sewage-filled creek, whose foul stench led the Americans to dub the nearby road "Shit Creek Street".
Black flags of Shi'ite Islam hang from walls. Among the few signs of the anger, fresh graffiti in English and Arabic declares "No, no occupation!"
U.S. and Iraqi commanders say casualties among their troops were surprisingly few despite an all-out onslaught by Sadr fighters that lasted for days. U.S. convoys are again able to drive through nearly all of the city with little sense of alarm.
But the fighting in Baghdad tested the loyalties of Shi'ite Iraqi troops against a Shi'ite foe, and served as a reminder of how fragile are the security improvements that U.S. authorities have touted over the past year.
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"Last week, there was an RPG point over there. That was a machine gun point," Petit says, gesturing toward a meat and vegetable market in Shula across the creek. "They were in the north shooting and we were in the south shooting back at them."
The market is overshadowed by a giant portrait of Shi'ite clerics, including Moqtada al-Sadr's slain father Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, whose image is ubiquitous in areas loyal to his son.
Petit's side of the creek is Ghazaliya, a once prosperous mixed neighborhood that is now split between a dirt poor Shi'ite north abutting Shula and a Sunni Arab south.
The Iraqi troops who guard the area are mainly Shi'ites, many of whom have family in Sadr's stronghold Shula across the creek. Their commander, Colonel Falih, says they were subjected to threats and intimidation by fighters.
"Some of these families did get threatened. Even me. People were calling me on my mobile phone, threatening to kill my family, kill my kids, if I fought the special groups," the Iraqi colonel said, using the term the U.S. military uses for rogue Sadr fighters it says are funded and trained by Iran.
"Some of the Iraqi police stations are in the neighborhood (where people live)," he said. "Some of the Iraqi police, they didn't show up."
When fighters came across the creek over wooden footbridges, the Iraqi army troops and Iraqi police abandoned two checkpoints -- and their weapons -- without a shot. A third also quickly fell.
"They got knocked down in the first round," acknowledges Petit. "But the important thing is they came back."
In Shula itself, Iraqi army soldiers held their own positions as wave upon wave of fighters tried to storm them, while U.S. troops moved in to back them up.
The U.S. commander in Shula, Lieutenant-Colonel Joe McLamb, said fighters launched about 10 strikes a day over a four-day period, with groups of attackers wielding machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and mortars.
"We eventually isolated Shula and allowed the extremists to come to us. We control very defensible positions," he said. "The insurgents came to where we were, and we killed them when they came to us."
At one location, a platoon of U.S. troops held a bridge overlooking one of the main roads into the area, while two platoons of Iraqi soldiers manned an outpost inside an unfinished mosque nearby under relentless assault.
"It was a constant fight for four, five days," said Captain Jeremy Ussery, commander of Bravo company of 1st Battalion 502nd Airborne, whose troops held the bridge as part of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division.
The U.S. forces moved in a M1 battle tank to help secure the bridge, although they did not open fire from its massive 120 mm main gun, Ussery said. The road into Shula remains closed and hundreds of people were slowly making their way in on foot this week.
"You can't win an insurgency with bullets. Any time you start shooting bullets you take steps back," Ussery said. "But the big victory here was that the Iraqi security forces stood their ground."
(Editing by Jon Boyle)
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