BAGHDAD - Snipers held rooftop positions as masked Sunni Arab insurgents said they were gearing up for another open street battle with pro-government Shiite militiamen in Baghdad's Adhamiya district on Tuesday.
The Arab Sunni stronghold is still feeling ripples from overnight clashes on Monday that appeared to be the closest yet to all-out sectarian fighting.
It's a reality that has Washington scrambling to avert civil war as Iraqi politicians struggle to form a government four months after parliamentary elections.
Iraqi men mourn for a relative killed Monday by unknown gunmen, and found in the Dora neighborhood Tuesday April 18, 2006 in Baghdad. A senior Iraqi Sunni politician blamed the deteriorating security situation on 'the existence of unleashed militia, including some militia backed by foreign powers who have only one goal -- that is to see Iraqis slaughtered in a sectarian war.'(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
A U.S. military spokesman said 50 insurgents attacked Iraqi forces in the middle of the night in a seven-hour battle that killed five rebels and wounded an Iraqi soldier.
Fighting was so fierce that U.S. reinforcements were brought in to the northern district, home to some of Iraq's most hardcore Sunni guerrillas and the Abu Hanifa mosque, near where Saddam Hussein was last seen in public before going into hiding.
Sporadic fighting continued on Tuesday.
"There are six people among our dead and wounded. Just half an hour ago a sniper killed Ali," said Mohammad, a 28-year-old Adhamiya resident, of his friend.
While the February bombing of a Shi'ite shrine pushed Iraq to the edge of civil war and left hundreds of bodies with bullet holes and torture marks on the streets, the scenario in Adhamiya is more alarming, despite fewer casualties.
It appeared to be the first example of a large-scale, open sectarian street battle in the capital, if not all of Iraq.
The boldness of the attack was a stark reminder of the security nightmare that will challenge the new government, which will face a Sunni insurgency that has killed many thousands of Shi'ite security forces and civilians.
"Today at noon a group of army soldiers came near the Abu Hanifa mosque and a sniper went on top of the roof. We managed to kill him with a grenade. I destroyed three of their vehicles with roadside bombs," said another rebel.
Insurgents setting up barricades said they saw Shi'ite fighters calling themselves The Army of Haidar closing in on the Abu Hanifa mosque from three directions.
"We expect them to come back again," said a man who only identified himself as Abu Bakr and said he was a former army officer under Saddam.
His description of the events of Monday night were even more dramatic than the U.S. military account.
"We saw about 100 to 150 men show up in cars. Some were wearing military uniforms and others were in civilian clothes," he said, as five gunmen stood guard over one of the main roads leading into Adhamiya.
Sunni leaders have accused the Shi'ite-led government of sanctioning militia death squads, a charge it denies.
"What happened in Adhamiya is an evil act by an armed militia backed by security and government operatives," Dhafer al-Ani, a member of the biggest Sunni Alliance, told a news conference.
As Abu Bakr and his men geared up for a new fight, the Sunni town of Ramadi, 110 km (68 miles) west of Baghdad, was recovering from the latest rebel assault.
The U.S. military said marines repelled insurgent attacks at several locations in central Ramadi on Monday, including the local government center, which often comes under fire.
The multiple suicide car bombs, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns appeared to be closely coordinated, said the military.
On Tuesday, residents said they kept their children home because insurgents ordered schools closed. Streets were mostly empty.
Washington hopes training will improve the performance of Iraqi forces and enable U.S. troops to start heading home.
But as the confusing Adhamiya fighting illustrated, it's hard to tell who is wearing Iraqi military uniforms, complicating the task of stabilizing the country.
© Reuters 2006