Street battle in Baghdad 'kills 50 insurgents'

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Iraqi and US troops, supported by American jets and helicopters, fought a fierce battle against Sunni insurgents in central Baghdad yesterday, killing 50 militants, according to the Iraqi authorities and capturing 21 others including several "foreign" fighters.

The operation was centred on Haifa Street, an area described by the government as "riddled with terrorist hideouts", where some 130 people have died since Saturday. It came after Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, promised a crackdown on insurgents and militias of every hue in the capital - essentially his end of a deal with George Bush which will see the US send up to 20,000 more troops to Iraq in a national television address tonight.

As the fighting raged, a cargo plane carrying Turkish construction workers crashed during landing at an airport near Baghdad, killing 30 people and injuring two others. A Foreign Ministry official in Ankara said that early indications were the crash was caused by bad weather and fog, and not by sectarian fighting.

Yesterday's battle reportedly began after Sunni gunmen attacked Iraqi military checkpoints and the army called on US help.

Earlier, Mr Maliki gave his most emphatic warning yet that the sectarian violence that has devastated the capital would no longer be tolerated. "All our political, economic, media, security and military resources," he said, "will be used to support the operations which Baghdad is waiting for."

But the acid test will be whether the Shia dominated central government goes equally forcefully after the Shia militias, including the Mehdi Army controlled by the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a key political backer of Mr Maliki. The organisation, based in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, is considered more powerful than the armed forces of the government.

As the latest violence raged, Mr Bush was putting the final touches to the prime-time speech in which he will announce his keenly awaited "New Approach" to Iraq, aimed at restoring order in the capital and in Anbar province, a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency.

With a 20,000-troops increase all but confirmed, the focus now is on the conditions Mr Bush will lay down for the Iraqi government - and whose fulfilment is essential if he is to begin the subsequent troop withdrawal demanded by Democrats and a large majority of the American public.

Without clear "benchmarks", critics say, the US will only be dragged deeper into a civil war without end, and which the presence of US troops only exacerbates. These fears have been heightened by the emergence of a second mobile-phone video of Saddam Hussein execution on 30 December, this one showing the former dictator's corpse. The video, which first appeared on a Baathist website, shows Saddam's head bent at a 90 degree angle to his body, with a red gash on the neck, consistent with the rope of a noose. Voices in the background are heard saying, "Hurry up, hurry up," and "Just one second, just one second... I'm about finished."

Democrats, who now control Congress, are divided on how to press their opposition to the troop increases. Nancy Pelosi, the incoming House Speaker, has spoken only of tougher "oversight" - seemingly ruling out a cut in funding for the troops. Senator Edward Kennedy said he would introduce legislation barring funding for the extra troops without prior congressional approval. "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam," the veteran Massachusetts liberal declared, "and as with Vietnam, the only solution to the crisis is political, not military. Our military men and women cannot force the Iraqi people to reconcile their differences." Whether any such bill will come to a vote, however, is unclear.