TIME: High Noon on Haifa Street


The booby-trapped artillery shell detonated shortly before midnight. In the roar and smoke, bodies ripped apart. Suddenly the nine-man foot patrol from Task Force 1/9, composed of infantrymen and cavalry troopers, was down to five, alone, in a darkened Baghdad alley and cut off from help. One soldier was dead. Three others lay bleeding but still alive as fire from AK-47s rained down on the scrambling troopers. Company commander Captain Thomas Foley hollered orders above the din, desperately trying to stave off the attack while getting some kind of aid to his wounded men. One had lost a leg in the massive blast; two others were critically wounded. Grenades were lobbed down from houses and apartments above. Foley banded the survivors together to cover their fallen comrades. A minute elapsed, then another and another. The onslaught didn't cease, but they held on. Forty more minutes would pass before rescuers could fight their way to them. It felt like a lifetime.

Moments like these have become harrowingly familiar for the men of Task Force 1/9 since their arrival in Baghdad in April. Their area of operations lies in the heart of the Iraqi capital, with one stretch less than two miles from the office of the new Iraqi government and the U.S. embassy inside the fortified Green Zone. It centers on Haifa Street, a once busy thoroughfare that has become the most feared stretch of Baghdad: a vicious insurgent sanctuary where U.S. and Iraqi government forces cannot tread except to shoot their way in and out. The battle for Haifa Street is illustrative of the wider challenges facing U.S. forces across Iraq, which will remain even if the U.S. manages to quell the uprising in Najaf led by Muqtada al-Sadr. After 17 months in Iraq, U.S. forces still often find themselves operating in enemy territory--even in the heart of Baghdad. For many, the dangers are mounting. Despite their efforts to stand up Iraqi forces and lower the profile of foreign troops, U.S. commanders have yet to stem the death toll: this month U.S. personnel are dying at three times the rate they were in February.

Like other frontline soldiers in Iraq, the men of Task Force 1/9--of which Charlie Company, of the National Guard's 1st Battalion, 153rd Infantry Regiment, is a part--face the risk of almost perpetual combat. Among the company's 119 men, dozens of Purple Hearts have been awarded for injuries suffered in battle. "Exceptional things are happening out there, bits and pieces of extraordinary bravery," says Foley. At the same time, Foley sees these streets stripping his young charges of their youth. "People outside have no idea of the overall effect of this. Eighteen-year-old kids are having to go through this. I'm watching some of them in my company and how quickly they're being made to grow up. It's chilling."

The midnight fire fight on May 19, which killed one member of Task Force 1/9 and wounded three, was a foreshadowing of even more bold insurgent attacks. On the morning of July 7, a 100-person company of Iraqi National Guardsmen ventured onto Haifa Street to set up checkpoints. Almost immediately, they came under fire from the concrete forest of towering Soviet-style apartment blocks that line the wide, four-lane boulevard. After 50 minutes, Task Force 1/9 headed toward Haifa Street to evacuate the Iraqi troops. As a platoon moved toward a former palace of Saddam Hussein's at one end of Haifa Street, another entered the narrow winding laneways of Old Baghdad, dubbed the Maze, and took up positions atop the guardhouses at Sheik Marouf Cemetery. Within a minute, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) burst around them, and 7.62-mm bullets buzzed past in swarms. At the other end of Haifa Street, insurgents stepped out from buildings and let loose their RPGs. Women hurled potatoes onto the street like grenades, duping the Iraqi soldiers into diving to the ground, while male insurgents unloaded machine-gun fire or threw real grenades. During three hours of fighting, U.S. forces finally unleashed high-explosive rounds from a 25-mm cannon, obliterating the two-man RPG teams, to quiet the boulevard. Two Iraqi guardsmen were killed, and U.S. commanders say their troops killed dozens of insurgents in the fire fight. But the attacks haven't subsided. "[The insurgents are] not intimidated," says Staff Sergeant Wilbert Tynes. "You've actually got to wipe them out to get rid of them."

Senior officers in Task Force 1/9 concede they do not know whom they're up against. They see boys, some as young as 10, hurling grenades. But they also encounter deftly executed ambushes bearing the mark of professional soldiers and sophisticated terrorist groups. "I really don't know who it is. I really don't know what they want. That's the problem," says Foley. Local militants say operations around Haifa Street have been led by Abu Musa'ab, a former senior Iraqi military officer who's now a commander for Battalions of Islamic Holy War, a group tied to Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi--the most wanted terrorist in Iraq--and funded by wealthy Wahhabi donors in gulf states. The insurgents say they are fighting for an Islamic state in Iraq. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, Abu Musa'ab exploits the military's reluctance to inflict damage on residential areas. His men barrage Task Force 1/9's base with rockets and mortars every two or three days, knowing that the Americans will rarely fire back. "I can fire from anywhere I like. Go on, pick a spot. I'll show you," Abu Musa'ab told TIME. "They can't chase us in here."

The G.I.s of Task Force 1/9 admit to a growing dread about the persistence of the insurgency. "My initial feeling when I'm told we're going back in there is 'damn.' You sit and shake your head," says Staff Sergeant Bryan Keeping. Tynes tells his crew to pray, "'cause you never know what's going to happen. We could have a good day, and they could have a bad day. Or maybe not." Or maybe both. Late last month, after a joint U.S.-Iraqi sweep of Haifa Street, the Iraqi government announced that 263 had been detained in a sweep for "insurgents"--a suspect figure, given that most of the detainees were Shi'ites and the bulk of the hard-core insurgents in this neighborhood are Sunnis. What wasn't reported is that Task Force 1/9 was ambushed three minutes into the operation and hit by 26 RPGs, eight roadside bombs and relentless small-arms fire during the gun battles that followed. One grenade landed just 3 ft. from Captain Foley; a concrete fence and the quick reactions of the specialist who pushed Foley out of the way are all that saved him. "We handed them their arses, but we were lucky," says Foley. "Each morning I thank God we got outta there that day." No one knows about the next time.