Iraqi authorities on Wednesday claimed their biggest success for months in the grueling campaign to quash the insurgency after Iraqi special police commandos backed by US troops and helicopters raided what they called a "major terror training camp" in the heart of the Sunni triangle.
Sabbah al Khaddim, a senior adviser to the interior minister, said 85 insurgents had been killed, including "a significant number of foreign militants," in a two-hour battle on Tuesday night in the remote Helwa area between the restive provinces of Anbar and Salaheddin, about 160km north-west of Baghdad.
Khaddim said seven Iraqi commandos were killed and five wounded in fierce fighting. There were further skirmishes yesterday as Iraqi forces continued to comb the area, he said. No US troops were reported wounded or killed in the fighting.
The ministry of interior, which oversees the 11,000-strong commando force -- formed last year -- said the commandos had seized explosives, vehicles, computers, documents and heavy weaponry at the camp.
"The terrorists had planned on attacking [the town of] Samarra by using a large number of VBIEDS [car bombs] that were found at the facility," it said.
"An early assessment of the site indicates a facility for training anti-Iraqi forces," Major Richard Goldenberg of the US 42nd Infantry Division, told Reuters.
Anti-Iraqi forces (AIF) is the US military's euphemism for insurgents.
"Documentation at the facility indicates that some members of the AIF were foreign fighters," he said.
A commander of the Iraqi unit that led the fighting said many of the dead militants were carrying Syrian and Saudi identity cards. One Algerian had been arrested. The casualty figure for the insurgents could not be verified. Iraqi authorities have in the past made exaggerated claims. A local militant group claimed that only 11 militants had been killed in the battle, while "many more" police commandos were killed.
Since the elections on Jan. 30, US and Iraqi officials have claimed that insurgents, while still capable of mounting sophisticated and deadly strikes, are on the defensive.
US military chiefs say the number of attacks across Iraq has fallen to 40-50 a day, far fewer than in the run-up to the elections. However, they remain at roughly the same number as a year ago.
Rebuilding Iraq's security capability is the major plank of the exit strategy from Iraq for US-led forces. Iraqi authorities say that 142,000 soldiers and police are operational.
But infiltration by militants has taken its toll.
Khaddim said Iraqis could take "particular satisfaction" for the latest raid because it was Iraqi led.
"We depended on our own intelligence sources for the raid, and then we called for backup for US helicopters to help chase the terrorists. I can say this is the biggest victory yet to the commandos," Khaddim said.
Tackling the insurgency will be the biggest challenge facing the transitional government once it takes office. Leaders of the Shiite alliance, victorious in January's elections, have been strongly critical of the two ministries -- defense and interior -- which have been most active in fighting the insurgency under the interim government of Ayed Allawi.