An Iraqi counter-terrorism force backed by U.S. soldiers battled gunmen early Wednesday during a raid in a village in western Iraq that left at least six people dead. No Americans were among the casualties.
The predawn shootout highlighted the reemerging tensions between the central government in Baghdad and residents in Anbar province, the former bastion of the Sunni Arab insurgency.
The raid began with an elite Iraqi unit surrounding a street in Jubail, just outside Fallouja, Iraqi police and the U.S. military said. According to the Americans, the counter-terrorism unit was looking to arrest an insurgent leader with Al Qaeda in Iraq when gunfire erupted from several directions.
The troops exchanged fire with the assailants; four people were killed inside the house, while two others appeared on the street with guns and were shot dead, a U.S. military spokesman said.
One Iraqi police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publically, said the elite unit had rebuffed an offer from the police to conduct the raid instead. He said the men inside the house had waved guns before the special forces opened fire. One tribal sheik confirmed there had been an exchange of fire, but said the Iraqi unit should have acted with more restraint.
The police put the number of dead at seven and said tensions were high in Fallouja, reflecting residents’ resentment over such actions by the central government’s forces. Anbar Gov. Qassem Mohammed demanded an explanation for why he had not been informed of the raid.
Tribal sheiks argued that raids by elite forces sent from Baghdad created only greater problems.
“Areas like Fallouja are well-equipped with army and police who can trace anyone breaking the law and avoid these kinds of ramifications,” said Sheik Lawrence Abid Ibrahim Hardan, a Sunni tribal leader in the region.
Anbar province has suffered a host of security problems in recent months. Police officers’ houses are bombed regularly and security officials have described both Al Qaeda in Iraq and remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party as gaining strength after suffering setbacks in the last three years.
In an interview this month, Defense Minister Abdul Qadir Obeidi described Al Qaeda in Iraq as having infiltrated the police and army in the province.
The raid appeared to be an example of new cooperation heralded by the Americans with the end of formal combat operations at the end of August. The U.S. military has just under 50,000 troops in Iraq to support and train Iraqi forces. American special forces have been given responsibility for supporting Iraq’s counter-terrorism units.
The Iraqi special forces have been lauded by U.S. military officials as a success story because of the units’ extensive training and collaboration with American counterparts. However, some Iraqis allege that the forces are too closely tied to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s office and that they carry out politically motivated arrests.
Times staff writer Raheem Salman contributed to this report.