BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – Machinegun fire rained from U.S. helicopters in central Baghdad on Friday as U.S. and Iraqi troops clashed with gunmen during a raid to seize militants, police and witnesses said.
The fighting erupted when the troops moved into the Fadhil area, a stronghold of Sunni insurgents, and were fired upon by militants hiding in houses, an Interior Ministry source told Reuters.
The fighting came a day after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said his forces could take over from the Americans in June. His comments followed talks with U.S. President George W. Bush, who strongly backed him as the “right guy” for Iraq.
Maliki has been under growing pressure to contain sectarian death squads roaming the capital’s streets and accused of killing hundreds of people.
Witnesses said two low-flying U.S. Apache helicopters were circling above the Fadhil area, firing their machineguns into the streets below and letting off flares to deflect missile attack.
Details of the operation were sketchy, but the Interior Ministry said one soldier had been killed and nine people wounded, including five soldiers. A Defence Ministry official said 28 suspects had been captured. The U.S. military had no immediate comment.
U.S. forces earlier staged numerous raids in and around Baghdad, killing two suspected al Qaeda insurgents and detaining 27, the military said in a statement.
Bombs also killed five people in Baghdad on Friday, including one at the city’s pet market.
Three people were killed and 22 wounded, police said, when a car bomb blasted the Ghazil market an hour before a regular traffic curfew came into force to protect worshippers at weekly prayers.
The market, a popular weekend spectacle, sells a raucous, colourful range of creatures, from guard dogs and monkeys to parrots, pigeons and tropical fish.
In the Shi’ite suburb of Husseiniya, north of the capital, another car bomb killed two people and wounded 13. In the northern oil city of Kirkuk, a suicide car bomber targeting a U.S. patrol wounded four civilians.
Just south of Baghdad late on Thursday, a roadside bomb killed one minibus passenger and wounded four.
Maliki said after meeting Bush in Jordan that his government’s forces would be able to take over security command from U.S. troops by June 2007 — a move which could allow the United States to start withdrawing.
The statement was in line with Maliki’s previous forecasts that he would need six months to take over once a new, accelerated training programme was in place. Bush and he announced agreement on that at their talks in Amman. “I cannot answer on behalf of the U.S. administration but I can tell you that from our side our forces will be ready by June 2007,” Maliki told ABC television.
U.S. commanders have grave worries about the effectiveness of Iraqi police and troops and their sectarian loyalties. The Sunni minority views some units as hostile Shi’ite militias.
Bush offered Maliki strong backing and said Iraqi forces would be trained more quickly to take over, but rejected suggestions he was seeking a “graceful exit” for U.S. troops.
U.S. troops were in Iraq to “get the job done” and would stay as long as the Baghdad government wanted them there, said Bush. Defeat for Bush’s Republicans in recent congressional elections has put pressure on him to pull out U.S. troops.