An American soldier was among the casualties – killed by small arms fire. His name is being withheld. His commanders said he was an exceptional young man who re-enlisted after surviving a mortar attack that killed his roommate.
The Iraqi wounded were taken to the mosque – laid out on the teal blue carpet stained by pools of blood and littered with shards of glass from the shattered ceiling panels which had read “There is no God but God...’
One of them was Saif Mohammad Fakhry, an Iraqi cameraman with the television news agency APTN. His brother said he had gone out in the street with a gun after suspected al-Qaeda militants attacked the neighborhood.
A doctor from the U.S. Army’s Stryker brigade, sweating with heat and exertion, worked frantically to insert a chest tube in his side to try to keep his lung from collapsing. I turned away for a moment as an American medic worked on an Iraqi man who had been shot in the face. When I turned back – he had died.
The Army’s Arabic interpreter who had held Saif’s hand knelt by him to pray. Saif, 26, was the younger brother of Omar Fakhry, 33, a photojournalist for Arabic television stations and Yasser Fakhry, 31, who was also an Iraqi journalist. They shouted in grief.
“Why, why?” Omar sobbed, cradling his brother’s body.
“Take my picture – it’s normal,” he said when I asked. Violent death and sorrow is an Iraqi cameraman’s stock in trade – he and Saif would have videotaped dozens and dozens of such scenes. Omar reminded me that the three of us had covered the same story in happier times – a bridge reopening in northern Iraq three years ago. Saif had been his assistant then.
Saif’s phone rang – Omar reached into his brother’s blood-splattered pockets and pulled it out. I asked if he had told Saif’s wife, who was expecting their first child any day.
“I told him to stay inside – that the fighting was none of our business,” he told me, still sobbing. “He was a peaceful man but he said: ‘They are killing us every day – we live like this with no electricity, with no water and they are killing us.”
Saif had gone into the street carrying the rifle that each family in Baghdad is allowed to own. The U.S. military normally considers guns on the streets justification to shoot on sight but in Amiriya that rule was relaxed as neighborhood men spurred on by religious leaders gathered to fight al-Qaeda.
“They have a better ability to find and kill al-Qaeda that we do,” said Lt Colonel Dale Kuehl, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment responsible for the area.
One of the imams leading the group said they killed an al-Qaeda leader and two other al-Qaeda members in the clashes Thursday – a target on the Americans’ own hit list. U.S. officials said they had no independent confirmation.
An hour before, the local Iraqi Army brigade commander had called Kuehl asking for more ammunition and for help in evacuating the wounded in the midst of the vehicle ban the armed group had asked for while they fought al-Qaeda. The ammunition wasn’t for the Iraqi Army but for a group of men not normally considered allies of the U.S. Army or the Shiite-dominated security forces. The U.S. commander said he would evacuate the wounded.
U.S. military officials said some of the group are what Iraqis call the ‘honorable resistance’ – including former Baathists and members of the Sunni insurgent group the Islamic Army who appear to have agreed to stop attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces to fight a common enemy. Local residents said al-Qaeda forces had taken root in Amiriyah, one of the last remaining Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad, and were launching unprovoked attacks.
“We don’t like the Americans because they allowed – excuse the expression – these dogs of Osama bin Laden to come to Iraq,” said a school teacher at the mosque. He hasn’t worked in more than three years. “Because they said I was a Baathi,” he said.
Some of the group appeared to be ordinary neighborhood men who have taken up arms as part of what U.S. military commanders say is a badly equipped, undermanned and largely untrained force. The number of neighborhood fighters was impossible to verify but appeared to be only about several dozen.
“They seem to be a bunch of residents who are tired and fed up, and everyone has an AK,” said Kuehl.
“We were expecting people from the area to help protect the area more,” a local leader told Kuehl.
“They’re afraid, we understand,” Kuehl told him, advising him to regroup and allow Iraqi Army forces to help protect the area. Most of the Iraqi Army are Shiite and unwelcome in this heavily Sunni area.
A U.S. commander said there were no clashes on Friday but five U.S. soldiers were wounded – at least two of them seriously – when a major weapons cache they’d found exploded.
“We are conducting ongoing operations to reinforce the lead of local residents and local sheikhs,” said Lieutant Colonel John Reynolds, from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division. “We want to build momentum with the help of this group.”
U.S. commanders hope that the group that has stepped forward to fight al-Qaeda could form the basis of a local police force in Amariyah – largely Sunni and mirroring the population here.
In the mosque the most seriously of the Iraqi wounded were taken to the main U.S. military hospital. “Don’t take me to an Iraqi hospital,” begged one fighter who had been shot four times. “The Shiite there will kill me.”
Yasser sat as the shadow’s lengthened and watched over his brother. Saif, who drew his last breath in a mosque after fighting for his home, died a martyr’s death. His friends laid a bullet on his chest.