The fight on Haifa Street started over 27 dead bodies. "Twenty male, seven female," says Lt. Col. Steve Duke, an American adviser to the Iraq Army. The bodies were dumped a week ago in a side alley off one of the main thoroughfares in Baghdad; they were apparently family members of an Iraqi police chief. The locals were too afraid to remove them, so Duke ordered his team to pick them up. That's about when the insurgents started to shoot from the high-rises at Duke's men, along with the Iraqi Army soldiers who were in the Haifa Street neighborhood. It was, says Duke gruffly, "a big s—t fight," a Saturday afternoon when the enemy decided not to run away. Says S/Sgt. Dennis Saxton, who was on the mission to retrieve the bodies: "As soon as the sun went down, it was boom, boom, boom, and the fireworks started."
Over the next two days, some 20 Iraqi Army soldiers were killed, and by midweek a reported 50 insurgents were dead. The fight expanded, pulling in U.S. Apache helicopters, F-15s, more than a dozen Iraqi gun trucks, Stryker combat vehicles and about 1,000 Iraqi Army soldiers. The images were shown across the world, acting as a vivid backdrop for President' George W. Bush's milestone speech committing more than 20,000 extra U.S. troops to Iraq. The U.S. president argued that the additional soldiers will help to secure Baghdad, but for those on the ground there were worrying signs of problems to come. Within 24 hours of the start of the fight in Haifa Street, Gen. Razzak Hamza, a Sunni Iraqi Army commander of the Fifth Brigade, Sixth Iraqi Army Division, received a call from the office of Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki saying that Hamza was relieved of duty. He was promptly replaced by a Shiite commander. According to Duke, the prime minister blamed Hamza for the violence on Haifa Street, and said he wasn't doing enough to stop it.
Duke was critical of the move, calling Razzak a "true patriot [who] would go after the bad guys on either side." Duke, a bald and blue-eyed 20-year Army veteran from Tennessee, believed the meddling from the prime minister's office was driven by sectarian motives, in part because Razzak had been putting pressure on the Shiite militias. "I think they did it because he's a Sunni," says Duke. "They thought he was sympathetic to the insurgents. He's not." (NEWSWEEK was unable to obtain comment from Maliki's office at the time of publication of this report.)
The interference by the Maliki administration raises questions about whether government leaders are truly willing to put Iraq's sectarian differences aside. Similar problems plagued the security push last fall, Operation Together Forward, where the focus appeared to be on Sunni neighborhoods while ignoring Shiite areas. It also puts U.S. forces in an awkward position of watching over what Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman dubbed in an interview with NEWSWEEK "sectarian cleansing." The operation in Haifa Street gives a glimpse of what that could look like: U.S. forces teaming up with the Iraqi Army to go after Sunnis, while the Shiite militias stand by and wait for the shooting to stop. Of particular concern is the Mahdi Army (also known as JAM), the militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "JAM is sitting on the 50-yard line eating popcorn, watching us do their work for them—the Iraqi Army, the police, the U.S.," says Duke. "If you're a Sunni, you got to feel pretty besieged."
If Maliki isn't sincere in his promise to stop militia violence, the problem could get worse once the Americans withdraw to the outskirts of Baghdad—something the Iraqi government is pushing hard to make happen. The tentative U.S. plan is to withdraw from the Iraqi capital by the end of the summer, after it has been stabilized by the additional U.S. troops. Duke wonders what the Iraqi government's motives are, if they just want the U.S. to get out of the city so they can "pull the little red curtain, and say, 'you guys don't need to see this,' and go on about their business." For many Iraqis, the prospect of the United States handing over total control to the Iraqi security forces with little oversight is "very scary," he says. Another U.S. officer, when asked if he believed Maliki would keep his promise to go after the militias, responded bluntly: "No. As my interpreter always says, the militias are the government. Literally, not figuratively. The militias are a wing of this government."
And their strength is growing. According to Maj. Mark Brady, an adviser to an Iraqi Army battalion, the Mahdi Army has been systematically pushing out across the river from eastern Baghdad and taking over Sunni neighborhoods. "They're slowly moving across the [Tigris] River," he says, using fear, intimidation and murder to get Sunnis to flee. The test, says Brady, will be when the "surge" troops butt heads with the Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army. "If you push, someone is going to push back," says Brady. "We're either going to jump over the hurdle with both feet, or hit the hurdle and be back at square one, with 20,000 more potential targets."
On Friday, NEWSWEEK accompanied an American and Iraqi patrol through a number of neighborhoods in Baghdad near Haifa Street. Just a 10-minute drive from the fortified Green Zone, parts of the bustling street have been an insurgent stronghold for the past three years. It was a rainy, cold day. The Humvee convoy crawled through deserted streets—partly due to the gray weather, partly due to the mandatory curfew. Bronx native Lt. Xeon Simpson, 24, led the patrol. He asked his interpreter to read a sign hung outside a Children's Hospital in Karkh. The gist of its message: "Congratulations President Moqtada al-Sadr for executing Saddam." Simpson told the hospital guards to take it down—it was illegal to hang that kind of propaganda on government buildings, he told them. The guard balked. "They are watching, if I remove it I will be killed," the guard said. "Who is watching? I thought you didn't know who put the sign up?" The guard shrugged, mumbled something about the Mahdi Army, and finally took the sign down.
The patrol continued through the Washish neighborhood, or what the soldiers call "Sadr City West." Pictures of Sadr were everywhere—on house fronts, on shop windows, plastered along walls. Banners and posters proclaimed his greatness. Another sign was in honor of one of the local Mahdi Army commanders, a man suspected of being responsible for more than 70 murders. (In militaryspeak, those are EJKs, or extrajudicial killings.) The patrol returned to the Muthanna Airbase at around 3 p.m., just in time for machine-gun fire to start echoing over the base. The firing, the soldiers said, was coming from Haifa Street. The fight wasn't over yet.