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Sunnis challenge Al Qaeda militants

Call for US help to end gunfire

Residents of Baghdad's Sadr City loaded a coffin on a minibus during a funeral after an early morning US air strike yesterday. A US military helicopter hit a house and car, killing two elderly people sleeping on the roof of their home, a police officer said. (Karim Kadim/Associated Press)

BAGHDAD -- US troops battled Al Qaeda in west Baghdad yesterday after Sunni 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, American forces 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 US and Iraqi officials have been trumpeting recently to the west in Anbar province, once considered the headquarters of the Sunni insurgency. Many Sunni tribes in the province have banded together to fight Al Qaeda, asserting the terrorist group is more dangerous than American forces.

Lieutenant Colonel Dale C. Kuehl, commander of First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment, who is responsible for the Amariyah area of the capital, confirmed the US military's role in the fighting. He said the battles raged Wednesday and yesterday but died off at night.

Although Al Qaeda is a Sunni organization opposed to the Shi'ite-dominated government, its ruthlessness and reliance on foreign fighters have alienated many Sunnis in Iraq.

The US 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 US military official, who would not be named 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.

US-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 occurred at 11 a.m. when gunmen -- identified by residents as Al Qaeda fighters -- began shooting randomly into the air, forcing students to flee from classrooms and people to seek refuge in their homes.

Residents said the fighters drove through the streets, using loudspeakers to declare that Amariyah was under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda front group.

Armed residents reportedly 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 yesterday, said the shooting continued, especially along al-Monadhama Street, the main thoroughfare in the district not far from Baghdad International Airport, where the US 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 [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 yesterday. Fakhry, 26, was the fifth AP employee to die violently in the Iraq war and the third killed since December.

The American military reported the deaths of three more soldiers, two killed Wednesday in a roadside bombing in Baghdad and one who died of wounds from a roadside bomb attack northwest of the capital on Tuesday. At least 122 American forces have died in May, the third deadliest month of the Iraq conflict.