.S. and Iraqi forces killed an estimated 15 al Qaeda gunmen during a fierce battle south of Baghdad after the militants launched a major attack on recently formed neighborhood patrols, the U.S. military said on Tuesday.In a statement, the military said up to 45 al Qaeda fighters assaulted two checkpoints operated by local security guards on Monday using a mix of small arms and heavy-caliber machineguns mounted on trucks, sparking a day-long fight.
At one stage, American F-16 warplanes dropped two 500 lb bombs on routes used by the gunmen to attack the checkpoints in the town of Adwaniya, 20 km (12 miles) southeast of Baghdad near the Tigris River. The area has long been a haven for al Qaeda in Iraq, which is blamed for most suicide bomb attacks in Iraq.
The al Qaeda raid marked one of the biggest attacks on neighborhood patrols since a program to increase their numbers picked up steam in and around Baghdad a few months ago.
The U.S. military calls the men, who run checkpoints and guard infrastructure, “concerned local citizens”. Most are paid.
Officials in the Shi’ite-led government view the formation of such armed groups, which are predominantly made up of Sunni Arabs, with suspicion and as a potential threat to the administration. A number of local guards are former insurgents who have since turned against al Qaeda.
Such groups first emerged last year when Sunni Arab tribal leaders tired of al Qaeda’s indiscriminate killings and strict interpretation of Islam set up neighborhood police units in Anbar province, western Iraq.
Anbar, once the heart of the Sunni Muslim insurgency, is now relatively peaceful, and the U.S. military has been spreading Anbar’s model into other Sunni Arab and Shi’ite areas.
About 70,000 Iraqis have so far been registered across Iraq under the neighborhood security plan.
U.S. officials said Monday’s battle underscored the cooperation between U.S. and Iraqi forces and the local patrols. It was unclear if any local guards were wounded in the fighting.
“I think all the elements that had a part in today’s battle were impressed with the concerned citizens,” First Lieutenant Robert Hamilton, a U.S. platoon leader, said in the statement.
The patrols are fairly new in Adwaniya, the military said.
Some U.S. military commanders have cited the neighborhood patrols as a factor helping to sharply reduce violence in Iraq in the past few months, especially around Baghdad and in areas where al Qaeda once had a strong presence.
But while violence has declined across Iraq, U.S. commanders have warned al Qaeda might try to stage a comeback.
Iraqi state television reported that authorities had found seven cars rigged with bombs in the Sunni-stronghold of Adhamiya in Baghdad. It was unclear when the cars were discovered.
On the political front, Bahaa al-Araji, a senior legislator from the movement of powerful Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said parliament should be disbanded and fresh elections held because many blocs did not represent their constituents.
Araji told a news conference his views were his own and not those of the Sadrist bloc, which has 30 seats in the 275-member parliament. He said bickering had delayed important legislation.
Parliament has yet to pass key laws that Washington believes will help heal sectarian divisions in Iraq.