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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 September, 2004, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
Central Baghdad's mean streets
By Martin Asser
BBC News Online

An effigy of an Iraqi soldier with a cardboard banner saying
An effigy of an Iraqi soldier hangs over Haifa Street in August

It may lie in the very heart of Baghdad's Karkh district - as the west bank of the Tigris is known - but Haifa Street is very much a front line of battle.

Its long rows of Soviet-style housing blocks make it perfect for ambushes, and its residents are among the country's most hostile people to US forces and their Iraqi allies.

Many of them are former Baathists from Tikrit, denizens of Saddam Hussein's hometown who flocked to Baghdad under his rule to join the secret intelligence and security services.

The area will be forever associated with the Iraqi strongman, who is said to have spent his formative years in this, one of the capital's toughest neighbourhoods.

Haifa Street
After an urban regeneration project in the early 1980s the area earned the dubious honour of bearing Saddam's name, Saddamiyat al-Karkh - an epithet that has not been entirely erased in the way that the Shia suburb of Saddam City, now Sadr City, was immediately after the war.

As well as its Iraqi Sunni residents, Haifa Street is also rumoured to have housed Arab mujahideen who came to resist the American occupation.

Iraq's American and indigenous rulers have both accused foreign fighters of being partly to blame for the insurgency, although little evidence of this has ever come to light.

Mean streets

Behind the tower blocks that line Haifa Street are a maze of narrow alleyways between rundown mud-brick buildings, said to be home to some of Baghdad's hardest criminals.

US armoured personnel carrier in Haifa Street district
US forays into the Haifa Street district are fraught with danger
It seems clear the tower blocks were really window dressing, designed to shield the run-down areas behind, and give Haifa Street its modern urban appearance.

But now the alleyways provide insurgents with easily accessible bolt-holes when they attack the fast-moving US armoured vehicles that usually mark the Americans' only presence on these meanest of mean streets.

The area may also occasionally provide a launch pad for the frequent mortar attacks on the nearby "international Zone" - the heavily fortified area formerly known as the Green Zone where US forces, western diplomats and the interim Iraqi administration are based.

The worst bloodshed has come in this area only in the last few days, with US helicopters firing on a crowd of civilians on 12 September following an ambush against an American armoured vehicle.

Haifa Street residents celebrate at US loss, just before being bombed
Celebration of US loss proved costly for some Haifa Street residents
Members of the crowd had produced flags of insurgency forces and some were gleefully celebrating the attack when the helicopters struck.

That was followed two days later with a massive suicide bombing by Islamic militants killing dozens of police recruits at a nearby police station.

Before that there were frequent nocturnal skirmishes between US forces and insurgents in the area.

In July, the skirmishes turned into heavy daytime gun battles that prompted US forces to call in air strikes.

The latest events are unlikely to make any calmer this area seething with anti-US sentiment.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley
"It's not just the security forces who are being killed"


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