US aircraft and ground troops killed 19 insurgents and 15 civilians, including nine children, in an attack in Iraq today – one of the heaviest civilian death tolls in an American operation in recent months.
The US military said it was targeting senior al Qaida senior leaders north west of Baghdad.
American forces have applied fierce and determined pressure on militants, especially al Qaida in Iraq, since the full contingent of additional US troops arrived in Iraq on June 15.
US President George Bush ordered the 30,000 American forces to Iraq to stanch sectarian violence and give the government “breathing space” to foster reconciliation among the country’s warring Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
US forces have chalked up notable success against militants but the government has become nearly deadlocked and made no progress on healing wounds among Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic groups.
The military statement detailing the attack said soldiers were acting on intelligence reports about an al Qaida meeting in the Lake Tharthar region. The southern reaches of the big, man-made lake are about 85km (50 miles) north west of the capital.
The American account said US surveillance confirmed “activity consistent with the reports and supporting aircraft engaged the time-sensitive target”. The first air attack killed “four terrorists”, said the statement.
The military said it then tracked some of those who escaped the initial attack to a place south of Lake Tharthar. It said ground forces moved on the site and came under fire. Air support was called in.
“After securing the area, the ground force assessed 15 terrorists, six women and nine children were killed,” the statement said. Two suspected al Qaida members, a woman and three children were wounded, according to the military account.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has confronted top American commander General David Petraeus in recent meetings over what he sees as overly aggressive US tactics that harm innocent civilians, according to officials in the government, who would only speak on condition of anonymity.
On October 5, a pre-dawn US raid on Khalis, a Shiite city north of Baghdad, killed 25 people when US troops called in air strikes after meeting a fierce barrage while hunting suspected smugglers of arms from Iran to Baghdad. Village leaders said the victims included civilians, but the military insisted the 25 killed were militants.
The military said its troopers “were reviewing information from the scene (of Thursday’s attack) as well as assessing the level of damage involved”.
The statement also issued regret “that civilians are hurt or killed while Coalition forces search to rid Iraq of terrorism”.
Also today, the US military said rockets fired from a nearby abandoned school struck Camp Victory, the US military headquarters near Baghdad Airport, killing two members of the US-led coalition and wounding 40 other people on the sprawling headquarters for US forces in Iraq.
Most troops stationed at the base are American but there are small contingents from other countries. The military said those wounded in the attack included two “third-country nationals,” meaning they were not Americans or Iraqis.
Gen Petraeus said 107mm rockets were used. A number of other rockets also were found at the launching site, he said, adding that the military had strong leads about who was behind the attack.
He did not elaborate, but a US military official said the rockets were fired from an abandoned school nearby.
US bases in Iraq frequently face rocket or mortar attacks, but Camp Victory is well-entrenched on the capital’s western outskirts and such heavy casualties are rare.
On September 11, one person was killed and 11 were wounded in a rocket attack on the complex, which includes lakeside palaces formerly used by Saddam Hussein that now house the headquarters of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq. The US military said a 240mm rocket provided to Shiite extremists by Iran was used in that attack.
By contrast, the US-protected Green Zone, which houses the American and British embassies and the Iraqi government headquarters in central Baghdad, is far more vulnerable and has faced a series of deadly strikes in recent months.
And suicide car bombers struck a market in the northern city of Kirkuk and a cafe in eastern Baghdad as at least 35 Iraqis were killed or found dead in attacks nationwide.
The US military said a soldier died in combat yesterday in eastern Baghdad.