U.S. jets screamed low over the capital and helicopter gunships swooped in to pound a central Baghdad battleground Tuesday, supporting Iraqi and American troops in a daylong fight that officials said killed 50 insurgents in a militant Sunni Arab stronghold.
Warplanes were circling overhead after hours of tank, mortar and small arms fire, reports . Iraqi police say the fighting began when Iraqi forces were attacked by insurgents, then U.S. troops and aircraft were called in to assist.
The battle raged on Haifa Street, about 1½ miles north of the heavily fortified Green Zone — home to the U.S. Embassy and other facilities — on the eve of President Bush's expected announcement that he would send another 20,000 soldiers to Iraq despite growing opposition on Capitol Hill.
It was the second major confrontation on Haifa Street in the four days since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced a new drive to rid Baghdad of sectarian fighters.
The U.S. military said about 1,000 Iraqi and U.S. soldiers carried out "targeted raids to capture multiple targets, disrupt insurgent activity and restore Iraqi Security Forces control of North Haifa Street."
"This area has been subject to insurgent activity which has repeatedly disrupted Iraqi Security Force operations in central Baghdad," said a statement quoting Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, spokesman for Multi-National Division Baghdad.
He said the U.S. jets buzzing the city did not conduct any air strikes, but "attack helicopters were used to engage targets in support of the ground forces."
Bleichwehl said no American or Iraqi soldiers were killed. He did not address the number of militants killed, though the Iraqi Defense Ministry reported 50 deaths among insurgents.
The battle in Haifa Street continued into the night, reports CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, spreading fear among the minority Sunni population, many of whom believe the Shiite-led Iraqi government is using this crackdown as a cover to drive them from the Iraqi capital, with the help of U.S. forces.
Elsewhere on Tuesday, Iraqi police reported finding 52 bodies dumped in three cities, 41 of them in Baghdad, all apparent victims of sectarian reprisal killings.
At a Saturday ceremony marking the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Iraqi Army, al-Maliki again vowed to strike at the Shiite Muslim and Sunni Arab extremists behind the sectarian warfare that has bloodied the country over the past year.
Al-Maliki issued the new plan after lengthy consultations with Bush, who has been preparing a new Iraq policy in recent weeks after the Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in the November elections.
Bush is to deliver a major policy address to the nation Wednesday night, outlining his new plan — widely reported to include the dispatch of thousands more troops to the increasingly violent capital. A senior official, speaking anonymously Tuesday, said the plan calls for the first soldiers to move into Iraq before the end of the month.
In other developments:
Within hours of al-Maliki's speech on Saturday, the Iraqi military said 30 suspected militants were killed in the Haifa Street area after police discovered 27 bodies dumped there — most of them with gunshot wounds in the head and signs of torture. U.S. forces also joined that battle after the Iraqi Army called for backup.
Al-Maliki — who draws major support from radical, anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the dangerous Mahdi army militia — appeared to have ordered the stepped-up fight with Sunni Arab fighters to put an Iraqi face on the latest bid to tame the capital.
Several al-Maliki aides and confidants have told The Associated Press that the prime minister plans to focus his troops, with American backing, on Sunni insurgents in western Baghdad at the outset of the drive. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the plan had not been disclosed.
Al-Maliki, the associates said, then plans to challenge al-Sadr to disarm and disband his militia because there would no longer be a reason for them to roam the streets with Sunni Arab insurgent forces crippled.
Such a strategy assumes a successful operation against the insurgents.
The latest plan to curb the sectarian fighting is at least the fourth, all of which have failed or led only to a temporary easing of violence in Baghdad, where Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen have been killing each other and civilians.
In an interview with Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television Tuesday night, al-Maliki predicted Bush would outline measures aimed "to speed up the building and arming of Iraqi forces, increase Baghdad's security in order to stabilize it and support the government in the economic field to improve services."
He did not mention Bush's expected setting out of benchmarks for the Iraqi government to institute measures for the fair sharing of the country's oil wealth among all sects and ethnic groups, a restoration of members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to their jobs and constitutional reforms.
Al-Maliki rejected similar U.S. demands late last year, leading to a serious breach between Baghdad and Washington. The prime minister also has routinely ignored U.S. calls for him to outlaw Shiite militias and move against them with his army.
So the test of U.S.-Iraqi agreement on the way forward could stand or fall on al-Maliki's willingness to confront his main political backer — al-Sadr.
On other matters, al-Maliki confirmed Tuesday he had rejected a request from U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for a delay of up to two weeks in Saddam's execution because "we did not want to keep a door open for trouble. We did not want the families of the victims to go out and demonstrate."
The hanging led to a global outcry after a video appeared on the Internet that showed Saddam being taunted in his final moments.
That clandestine video showed the former leader dropping through the gallows floor as he recited prayers and ended with his body swinging at the end of a rope. The Iraqi government said it has formed a committee to investigate who took the video and leaked it, saying one person had been referred to judicial authorities.
North of Baghdad, meanwhile, a cargo plane carrying mostly Turkish workers crashed as it apparently tried to land at a U.S. air base in bad weather, killing 34 people, Iraqi and Turkish officials said. The Turkish Embassy said one Turk survived but was severely injured.
An Iraqi security official at Baghdad airport said an Antonov cargo plane crashed near Balad, 50 miles north of the capital. The official said it was unclear whether the aircraft had mechanical problems or was shot down.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry official said initial reports indicated the plane went down because of bad weather and heavy fog. The pilot aborted an initial attempt to land because of heavy fog and crashed while trying again, the official said.