U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, backed by American warplanes, battled suspected insurgents for hours Tuesday in central Baghdad, and 50 militant fighters were killed, the Defense Ministry said.
Elsewhere, a cargo plane carrying Turkish construction workers at a foggy airstrip in Balad, killing 34 people and injuring one, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. Two people were unaccounted for.
The battle came less than 48 hours before . He was expected to announce an increase of up to 20,000 additional U.S. troops.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the government supported such a troop surge.
“The goal is to protect Baghdad and other areas. If this is going to be achieved by an increase in friendly coalition forces, we have no objection and we support this,” al-Dabbagh told reporters.
Battle for Haifa Street
U.S. helicopters circled above the Haifa Street area where the fighting took place, and witnesses said they had seen the aircraft firing into the combat zone. Explosions rang out across the area, just north of the heavily fortified Green Zone.
Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Shaker, a ministry spokesman, said 21 militants were captured, including seven foreign Arabs — including three Syrians — and one Sudanese.
Police said the clashes began when gunmen attacked Iraqi army checkpoints, and that Iraqi soldiers called for U.S. military help.
Al-Dabbagh said Iraqi forces had decided to wipe out “terrorist hide-outs” in the area once and for all. “God willing, Haifa Street will never threaten the Iraqi people again,” he said.
Al-Dabbagh also said followers of Saddam Hussein were to blame for the violence.
“This would never have happened were it not for some groups who provided safe havens for these terrorists. And as everyone knows, the former Baathists provided safe haven and logistics for them to destabilize Iraq,” he said.
Haifa Street has long been Sunni insurgent territory and housed many senior Baath Party members and officials during Saddam’s rule.
The Defense Ministry issued a statement saying 11 people were arrested in the Haifa Street battle, including seven Syrians. But the U.S. military said only three people had been arrested.
A U.S. military spokesman said American and Iraqi forces launched raids to capture multiple targets, disrupt insurgent activity and restore Iraqi Security Forces control of North Haifa Street.
“This area has been subject to insurgent activity, which has repeatedly disrupted Iraqi Security Force operations in central Baghdad,” Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl said in a statement.
Troops were receiving small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenade and indirect fire attacks during the operation, the statement said.
“Anyone who conducts activities outside the rule of law will be subject to the consequences,” Rear Adm. Mark Fox, another U.S. military spokesman, said at a news conference with al-Dabbagh.
Later in the day, two mortar shells hit a house in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, killing four people, police said Wednesday. The source of the mortar fire was unclear.
U.S. military shuffles at the top
Bush has shuffled his teams of military and diplomatic advisers ahead of announcing his new Iraq strategy.
Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander overseeing the military theater that includes Iraq, will be succeeded by Adm. William Fallon, now Abizaid’s counterpart in the Pacific. Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus is the president’s choice to be the new chief commander in Iraq, replacing Gen. George Casey.
Casey in turn will replace the retiring Gen. Peter Schoomaker as Army chief of staff.
“There may be a lot of changes in leadership and there may be a lot of changes in tactics, but the relationship with our Iraqi counterparts is unchanging,” Fox told reporters.
Private Turkish news agencies said the cargo plane was trying to land at the U.S. military base in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. The Foreign Ministry did not say whether the crash was at the base.
Cargo plane crash
The pilot had aborted an initial attempt to land because of heavy fog, then crashed on a second try, a Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because an official announcement had not yet been authorized.
An Iraqi security official said the passengers were mostly Turks who worked at the Baghdad airport. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The Russian-made Antonov-26, belonging to a Moldovan air cargo company, had taken off from Adana in southern Turkey and was carrying workers from the Kulak construction company, the governor of Adana said. Calls to Kulak’s offices in Adana and Ankara went unanswered after the crash.
On board were 35 people: 29 Turks and one American, as well as a crew of five — three from Moldova and one each from Russia and Ukraine, Gov. Cahit Kirac said. However, the director of the air cargo company, Serghei Caraus, said five Moldovans were among those on the plane.
New Saddam video surfaces
Meanwhile, . The 27-second video shows the late dictator’s corpse with a gaping neck wound, his head twisted at a 90-degree angle.
Apparently recorded on a cell phone, the video pans the length of Saddam’s body wrapped in a white sheet. Voices in the background say, “Hurry up, hurry up,” and “Just one second, just one second ... I’m about finished.”
It was the second clandestine video that had been leaked from the hanging. The first, released on the day of the execution, showed Saddam being taunted in his final moments and then dropping through the gallows floor.
Al-Dabbagh said the person responsible for recording the first video, from inside the execution chamber, had been arrested and referred to an Iraqi court.
In other violence Tuesday, a policeman was wounded when a roadside bomb hit his patrol car in downtown Baghdad, police said.
Another roadside bomb missed an Iraqi army patrol in Mosul but wounded an 8-year-old girl nearby, Iraqi Col. Eidan al-Jubouri said. Mosul is 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.