John Burns, NY Times:
Nearly two years after American troops captured Baghdad, Haifa Street is like an arrow at the city's heart. A little more than two miles long, it runs south through a canyon of mostly abandoned high-rises and majestic date palms almost to the Assassin's Gate, the imperial-style arch that is the main portal to the Green Zone compound, the principal seat of American power.Read it all. Burns is a fair reporter who tells the whole story.
American soldiers call the street Purple Heart Boulevard: the First Battalion of the Ninth Cavalry, patrolling here for the past year before its recent rotation back to base at Fort Hood, Tex., received more than 160 Purple Hearts. Many patrols were on foot, to gather intelligence on neighborhoods that American officers say have been the base for brutal car bombings, kidnappings and assassinations across Baghdad.
In the first 18 months of the fighting, the insurgents mostly outmaneuvered the Americans along Haifa Street, showing they could carry the war to the capital's core with something approaching impunity.
But American officers say there have been signs that the tide may be shifting. Despite some notable exceptions, insurgents are attacking in smaller numbers, and with less intensity; mortar attacks into the Green Zone have diminished sharply; major raids have uncovered large weapons caches; and some rebel leaders have been arrested or killed.
Last month, an Iraqi brigade with two battalions garrisoned along Haifa Street became the first homegrown unit to take operational responsibility for any combat zone in Iraq. The two battalions can muster more than 2,000 soldiers, twice the size of the American cavalry battalion that has led most fighting along the street. So far, American officers say, the Iraqis have done well, withstanding insurgent attacks and conducting aggressive patrols and raids, without deserting in large numbers or hunkering down in their garrisons.
If Haifa Street is brought under control, it will be a major step toward restoring order in this city of five million, and will send a wider message: that the insurgents can be matched, and beaten back.
In recent weeks, with the new Iraqi units on hand, the Americans have sent up to 1,500 men at a time on sweeps, uncovering insurgent weapons caches and arresting insurgent leaders like Ali Mama, the name taken by a gangster who was once a favored hit man for Saddam Hussein.
He is now in Abu Ghraib; others who have become local legends with attacks on the Americans have been killed, including one who used the nom-de-guerre Ra'id the Hunter, American intelligence officers say.
With helicopters bristling with missiles circling overhead, the colonel offered what sound like a valedictory for the Haifa Street insurgents. "We've gotten to the point where the bad guys really aren't fighting us here anymore," he said. "The battle is all in the back alleys now."