BAGHDAD – U.S. troops battled Al Qaeda in west Baghdad after Sunni Arab residents challenged the militants and called for American help to end furious gunfire that kept students from final exams and forced people in the neighborhood to huddle indoors.
Backed by helicopter gunships, U.S. troops on Thursday joined the two-day battle in the Amariyah district, according to a councilman and other residents of the Sunni district.
The fight reflects a trend that U.S. and Iraqi officials have been trumpeting recently to the west in Anbar province, once considered the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. Many Sunni tribes in the province have banded together to fight Al Qaeda, claiming the terrorist group is more dangerous than American forces.
Three more U.S. soldiers were reported killed in combat, raising the number of American deaths to at least 122 for May, making it the third deadliest month for Americans in the conflict. The military said two soldiers died Wednesday from a roadside bomb in Baghdad and one died of wounds inflicted by a bomb attack northwest of the capital Tuesday.
Lt. Col. Dale C. Kuehl, commander of 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, who is responsible for the Amariyah area of the capital, confirmed the U.S. military's role in the fighting in the Sunni district. He said the battles raged Wednesday and Thursday but died off at night.
Although Al Qaeda is a Sunni organization opposed to the Shiite Muslim-dominated government, its ruthlessness and reliance on foreign fighters have alienated many Sunnis in Iraq.
The U.S. military congratulated Amariyah residents for standing up to Al Qaeda.
"The events of the past two days are promising developments. Sunni citizens of Amariyah that have been previously terrorized by Al Qaeda are now resisting and want them gone. They're tired of the intimidation that included the murder of women," Kuehl said.
A U.S. military officer, who agreed to discuss the fight only if not quoted by name because the information was not for release, said the Army was checking reports of a big Al Qaeda enclave in Amariyah housing foreign fighters, including Afghans, doing temporary duty in Iraq.
U.S.-funded Alhurra television reported that non-Iraqi Arabs and Afghans were among the fighters over the past two days. Kuehl said he could not confirm those reports.
The heaviest fighting came at 11 a.m. when gunmen — identified by residents as Al Qaeda fighters — began shooting randomly into the air, forcing people to flee into their homes and students from classrooms.
They said the fighters drove through the streets using loudspeakers to claim that Amariyah was under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda front group.
Armed residents were said to have resisted, set some of the Al Qaeda gunmen's cars on fire and called the Americans for help.
One Amariyah resident, reached by telephone late Thursday, said the shooting continued, especially along al-Monadhama Street, the main thoroughfare in the district not far from Baghdad International Airport, where the U.S. military has extensive facilities.
"The Americans came this afternoon and it got quiet for a while. We are staying home, frightened. We have no idea what's going on. There's nothing to do. There has been shooting outside since last (Wednesday) night," the resident said.
Everyone contacted in the neighborhood spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears of reprisals from roaming gunmen.
Casualty figures were not immediately available. But the district councilman said the Al Qaeda leader in Amariyah, known as Haji Hameed, was killed and 45 other fighters were detained.
Saif M. Fakhry, an Associated Press Television News cameraman, was shot twice and killed in the turmoil in Amariyah on Thursday. Fakhry, 26, was the fifth AP employee to die violently in the Iraq war and the third killed since December.
He was spending the day with his wife, Samah Abbas, who is expecting their first child in June. According to his family, Fakhry was walking to a mosque near his Amariyah home when he was killed. It was not clear who fired the shots.
Also Thursday, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said U.S. military officers were talking with Iraqi militants — excluding Al Qaeda — about cease-fires and other arrangements to try to stop the violence.
He also suggested he might not be able to meet the September deadline for telling Congress whether President Bush's military buildup in Iraq is working.
Odierno said commanders at all levels are being empowered to reach out for talks with militants, tribes, religious leaders and others. Iraq has been gripped by violence on a range of fronts including insurgents, sectarian rivals and common criminals.
"It's just beginning, so we have a lot of work to do in this," he said. "But we have restructured ourselves ... to work this issue."
He said he thinks 80 percent of Iraqis, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militants, can reach reconciliation with each other, although most Al Qaeda operatives will not.
"We are talking about cease-fires, and maybe signing some things that say they won't conduct operations against the government of Iraq or against coalition forces," Odierno told Pentagon reporters in a video conference from Baghdad.
On the assessment of operations that is due in September, he said he thinks it will take longer to tell whether the increase of nearly 30,000 troops will work as intended: to quell violence enough to give Iraqi officials breathing space to work on reconciliation and development issues.
In western Iraq on Thursday, a suicide bomber hit a police recruiting center in Fallujah, and there were conflicting reports about the death toll. Police said as many as 25 people were killed, but the U.S. military said just one policeman died.
Elsewhere, three policemen and three civilians were killed and 15 civilians were wounded when a suicide truck bomber struck a communications center on the western outskirts of Ramadi, according to Anbar provincial security adviser Col. Tariq Youssef Mohammed.
American forces, meanwhile, continued Thursday with the search for five kidnapped Britons in and around Baghdad's Sadr City district.
A procession of mourners, some of them women wailing and beating their chests, marched through Sadr City behind a small bus carrying the coffins of two people who police said were killed in a U.S. helicopter strike before dawn.
The U.S. military said it had no report of airstrikes in Sadr City and that there were no civilian casualties in the second day of the search for the Britons. The five were abducted from a Finance Ministry data processing building in eastern Baghdad on Tuesday.
APTN videotape from Sadr City showed the coffins of the victims atop a small bus with men and women walking behind, crying. A young boy could be seen sitting next to the coffins on the bus.