BAGHDAD — Attack helicopters pumped rockets at gunmen holed up in office towers and apartment blocks Wednesday, as U.S. and Iraqi forces swept through a notorious Sunni insurgent enclave in the heart of Baghdad.
The U.S. military said the fighting on and around Haifa Street was part of a new offensive launched before dawn to disrupt illegal militias and bring the volatile area under the control of Iraqi security forces.
The attack began within hours after President Bush, in his State of the Union speech, urged Congress to get behind his plan to boost the number of troops and crack down on violence in Baghdad and other volatile areas of Iraq.
The low thud of mortar blasts rocked the capital for hours, and smoke billowed above Haifa Street, dubbed "Sniper Alley," which U.S. and Iraqi forces have struggled to tame. It was the second time this month that U.S. and Iraqi forces clashed with insurgents on the commercial and residential street just north of the Green Zone, which is home to the U.S. and British embassies as well as the Iraqi parliament.
Iraqi officials said that the operation was not part of a planned security offensive for Baghdad but that it would prepare the way for a more concerted effort to clear out and hold troubled neighborhoods.
"What kind of security plan is this?" asked one terrified resident, who spent the morning in his home nearby. "They are destroying us, pounding an area less than one square kilometer with mortars, shells from helicopters and their tanks."
Residents accused the United States of unwittingly aiding Shiite Muslim militiamen accused of trying to force the mostly Sunni Muslim inhabitants from their homes, as part of a pattern of sectarian "cleansing" that is redrawing the map of the once largely integrated capital.
As many as 31 gunmen were killed and 35 detained Wednesday, including numerous foreign fighters, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement. The U.S. military confirmed seven arrests.
At least one U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire in central Baghdad, the military said, but it did not specify whether the death was related to the Haifa Street offensive.
The military also announced the deaths Tuesday of two Marines in combat in Al Anbar province, west of the capital, bringing the number of U.S. personnel killed since the start of the Iraq war in 2003 to 3,063, according to the website icasualties.org.
Mortar rounds arched toward the U.S. and Iraqi forces as they pressed into the warren of houses, offices and apartment blocks that surround Haifa Street. U.S. forces said they responded with a single mortar round, which dispersed the insurgent mortar team.
Insurgents in the high-rise buildings fired machine guns and launched hand-held and rocket-propelled grenades at the troops as they combed homes for weapons and fighters. The U.S.-led forces returned fire with guns, shells and airstrikes, the military said.
Iraqi soldiers and police were joined by elements of the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, and the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, for the operation dubbed Tomahawk Strike 11.
Iraqi forces said they uncovered a large weapons cache near Karkh High School, where the late former President Saddam Hussein studied in his youth. Numerous rocket-propelled grenades, as well as antitank and artillery rounds, were seized, the U.S. military said.
Iraqi police and soldiers cordoned off the area, allowing pedestrians to enter Haifa Street only after a careful search. The few civilians venturing into the area darted across largely deserted streets, hunched over for fear of snipers firing from rooftops. Explosions and the crackle of gunfire continued for hours.
"The situation is very dangerous here," said a resident reached by telephone, who gave his name only as Abu Abdullah. "We hear gunshots and bullet sprays everywhere."
Sunni political and religious leaders protested the operation, which Adnan Dulaimi, a lawmaker with the main Sunni bloc, called "barbaric."
"Haifa Street is filled with poor people and lower-class families, so I demand the end of these operations," he told journalists.
The U.S. military emphasized in a statement that the operation did not target only Sunni insurgents, but was "rather aimed at rapidly isolating all active insurgents and gaining control of this key central Baghdad location."
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has promised to crack down equally on Shiite and Sunni Arab militants as U.S. and Iraqi forces pour troops into Baghdad to quell a civil war that kills an estimated 100 people a day.
The top U.S. envoy in Iraq said Maliki's government had toughened its stance toward Shiite militias linked to key members of the governing coalition, including followers of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr. Members of Sadr's Al Mahdi army are believed to be behind many of the most vicious attacks against Sunnis, some of them under the cover of Iraq's security forces.