BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s interim government announced a new security law on Wednesday giving itself wider powers to combat militants as insurgents battled U.S. troops and Iraqi forces in the heart of Baghdad.
Justice Minister Malek al-Hassan told a news conference the widely anticipated National Safety Law enabled the government to impose emergency measures such as curfews, searches and detentions in some areas for periods of up to 60 days.
He said U.S.-led forces could help enforce the law at the request of the interim government, but that this was only likely to happen in exceptional circumstances.
While the government outlined the wider powers, street clashes raged in central Baghdad.
Two U.S. helicopters fired at a building during the fighting in the Haifa Street area, a Reuters photographer said. Black smoke poured from the building after the strikes.
Earlier machinegun fire and grenade explosions rang out, forcing drivers and pedestrians to flee the normally busy commercial thoroughfare on the west bank of the Tigris river.
At least three Iraqi soldiers lay dead on the Abu al-Muadham bridge. Two wounded policemen arrived at a hospital after an attack on a police station, Reuters witnesses said.
“We are in a situation of engagement with who we believe to be foreign fighters,” said one U.S. soldier.
U.S. forces have often clashed with Shi’ite guerrillas in the slums of the Sadr City suburb, but daylight street battles have rarely erupted in the middle of the capital.
The fighting later subsided. Earlier several mortar rounds hit Baghdad, wounding seven people, the Interior Ministry said.
Five were hurt when two rounds struck a medical center near the office of Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord party in the western district of Mansour. Another round landed in the southern Dora district, wounding two people.
The U.S. military said it had no comment on the fighting, but said guerrillas killed four U.S. marines west of Baghdad on Tuesday. The Pentagon says 646 U.S. military personnel have been killed in action in Iraq since the start of the war.
OIL EXPORTS RECOVER
Announcement of the National Safety Law had been delayed several times as the government, which formally took over from the U.S.-led occupation on June 28, ironed out the details and consulted with U.S. officials, political sources said.
Allawi’s government has said it also plans to restore the death penalty, suspended during the U.S.-led occupation, and offer a temporary amnesty for rebels who fought the Americans.
Human Rights Minister Bakhtiar Amin told the news conference the cabinet was still discussing the amnesty.
Oil exports returned to normal levels after repairs to a pipeline damaged by weekend sabotage that had helped send world oil prices to one-month highs.
Exports were back to 1.7 million barrels a day after the sabotage had cut them to 1 million, a shipping agent said.
Allawi, like Washington, blames Saddam Hussein supporters and foreign militants for sabotage, guerrilla attacks and kidnappings aimed at making postwar Iraq ungovernable.
Hassan, the justice minister, said the government was holding 29 foreigners for taking part in the insurgency. “They are all Arabs, regrettably,” he said.
U.S. defense officials said 90 of more than 5,700 security detainees held by U.S.-led forces throughout Iraq were foreign fighters, about half of them Syrians. Others were from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Unidentified militants have kidnapped an Egyptian driver who was delivering petrol from Saudi Arabia to the U.S. military in Iraq, Al Jazeera television reported.
The Egyptian embassy in Baghdad and U.S. military said they had no information about the reported abduction.
Dozens of foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since April. At least four have been killed, including an American and a South Korean beheaded by the Jama’at al-Tawhid and Jihad group led by al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
U.S. planes bombed a suspected Zarqawi “safe house” in the western city of Falluja on Monday, killing 13 people, in the fifth such strike in three weeks. Allawi said his government had supplied the intelligence that led to the air raid.
There was no word on the fate of a kidnapped Lebanese-born U.S. marine reported to have been released on Tuesday.
Wassef Ali Hassoun’s brother Sami, speaking from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, said his family had received word Hassoun was alive and had been freed in the early hours.