An ominous preview on Baghdad’s Haifa Street

In the battle for Baghdad, Haifa Street has changed hands so often that it has taken on the feel of a no man’s land, the deadly space between opposing trenches.

On Wednesday, as American and Iraqi troops poured in, the street showed why it is such a sensitive gauge of an urban conflict marked by front lines that melt into confusion, enemies with no clear identity and allies who vanish or don’t show up.

In a miniature version of the troop increase that the United States hopes will secure the city, American soldiers and armored vehicles raced onto Haifa Street before dawn to dislodge Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias who have been battling for a stretch of ragged slums and mostly abandoned high rises. But as the sun rose, many of the Iraqi army units who were supposed to do the actual searches of the buildings did not arrive on time, forcing the Americans to start the job on their own.

When the Iraqi units did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns. As the morning wore on and the troops came under fire from all directions, another apparent flaw in this strategy became clear as empty apartments became lairs for gunmen who flitted from window to window and killed at least one U.S. soldier, with a shot to the head.

Whether the gunfire was coming from Sunni or Shiite insurgents or militia fighters or some of the Iraqi soldiers who had disappeared into the cityscape, no one could say.

“Who the hell is shooting at us?” shouted Sgt. 1st Class Marc Biletski, whose platoon was jammed into a small room off an alley being swept by a sniper’s bullets. “Do we know who they are?”

Shortly thereafter, the platoon tossed smoke bombs and sprinted through the alley to a more secure position.

Haphazard searches

The American units, including Bradley Fighting Vehicles as well as the highly mobile Stryker vehicles, began moving up Haifa Street from the south by 2 a.m. Wednesday. A platoon of B Company in the Stryker Brigade secured the roof of a high rise, where an Eminem poster was stuck on the wall of what appeared to be an Iraqi teenager’s room on the top floor. But in a pattern that would be repeated again and again, there was no one in the apartment.

Many of the Iraqi units that showed up late never seemed to take the task seriously, searching haphazardly, breaking dishes and rifling through personal CD collections in the apartments. Eventually the Americans realized that the Iraqis were searching no more than half of the apartments; at one point the Iraqis completely disappeared.

“Where did they go?” yelled Sgt. Jeri Gillett. Another GI suggested, “I say we just let them go and we do this ourselves.”

Enemy without uniforms

Then the gunfire began. It would come from high rises across the street, from behind trash piles and sandbags in alleys and from so many other directions that the soldiers began to worry that the Iraqi soldiers were firing at them.

The only thing that was clear was that no one knew who the enemy was. “The thing is, we wear uniforms — they don’t,” said Spc. Terry Wilson.

At one point the Americans were forced to jog alongside the Strykers on Haifa Street, sheltering themselves as best they could from the gunfire. The Americans finally found the Iraqis and ended up accompanying them into an extremely dangerous and exposed warren of low-slung hovels behind the high rises as gunfire rained down.

American officers tried to persuade the Iraqi soldiers to leave the slum area for better cover, but the Iraqis refused to risk crossing a lane that was being raked by machine gun fire. “It’s their show,” said Lt. David Stroud, adding that the Americans have orders to defer to the Iraqis in cases like this.

More than 30 “terrorists” were arrested during the operation and roughly 25 were killed, said Ali Dabbagh, a spokesman for the prime minister. A U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, said he was aware of seven arrests and did not know whether anyone had died.

A U.S. Apache helicopter hovers over the smoke above Baghdad's restive Haifa Street on Wednesday. SABAH ARAR: AFP/GETTY IMAGES