Intense house-to-house fighting between insurgents and Iraqi police north of Baghdad killed 43 people, including 24 officers, the US military said yesterday. US troops later joined the fight, aiding in a counterattack that left 18 insurgents dead, the military said.
An unknown number of "anti-Iraqi forces" ambushed a police unit based in Baquba, 60km northeast of Baghdad, at about 6:30am on Thursday the military said, using its standard term for Sunni insurgents.
Police fought back and US troops nearby were diverted from another mission, assisted by air cover. One Iraqi civilian was also killed, eight insurgents wounded, and 27 others captured, the military said.
The attack marked some of the heaviest fighting in recent days between insurgents and Iraqi security forces, who US commanders have been pressing to take over more responsibility for security, thereby allowing them to begin contemplating US troop withdrawals.
With rising US casualties adding to growing anti-war sentiment, US leaders are eager to show that the Iraqi forces are rising to the challenge by controlling territory and inflicting casualties on their enemies.
Iraq's Interior Ministry, which commands the police, gave a slightly different version of the clash and said those killed included Khan Bani Saad's police chief, Brigadier Abbas al-Ameri, and his brother.
A ministry spokesman, Brigadier Abdel-Karim Khalaf, said forces moved into the area after learning of the presence of insurgents who were behind the ambush on Monday of a convoy of buses carrying police recruits in which at least 15 were killed and 25 wounded.
"After we received information that these criminals had a presence ... we mobilized our forces and attacked the area," Khalf said. "We cannot tolerate this and that is the reason why we took action yesterday," he said.
Khalf denied police had been surprised and put the death toll among officers at 12, with 19 insurgents killed and 28 captured. He described the enemy fighters as hardcore remnants of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime joined by "Takfiri elements," a term for Islamic radicals that include groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.
US troop deaths hit their highest monthly total in a year on Thursday with the announcement of five more deaths, a Navy sailor and four Marines. All were killed on Wednesday in volatile Anbar Province, west of Baghdad, where Sunni insurgents have inflicted fully more than one-third of the 2,809 US military deaths since the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq.
At least 96 US troops have died so far this month, equaling the level for the whole of October last year -- a factor in growing calls for US President George W. Bush to change strategy in Iraq. There have been only three months in which more US forces died in Iraq: 107 in January last year; at least 135 in April 2004, and 137 in November 2004.
US officials have linked this month's higher death toll to a historical spike in violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, additional US military vulnerability because of the security drive in Baghdad and the coming US midterm elections.
US forces were continuing to search for a missing soldier, an Iraqi-born linguist abducted while visiting relatives on Monday.