Sunni Arab militant groups suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia have established training camps east of Baghdad that are turning out well-disciplined units willing to fight US forces in set-piece battles, US military commanders said on Thursday.
US soldiers fought such units in a pitched battle last week in Turki, a village 40km south of the Forward Operating Base Caldwell army base in volatile Diyala Province, bordering Iran. At least 72 insurgents and two US officers were killed in the fighting. US commanders said they called in 12 hours of airstrikes while soldiers shot their way through a reed-strewn network of canals in extremely close combat.
Officers said that in that battle, unlike the vast majority of engagements in Diyala, insurgents stood and fought, even deploying a platoon-size unit that showed remarkable discipline. One captain said the unit was in "perfect military formation."
Insurgents throughout Iraq usually avoid direct confrontation with US troops, preferring to use hit-and-run tactics and melting away at the sight of US armored vehicles.
Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Poppas, commander of the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry, a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division, said in an interview that the fighters at Turki "were disciplined and well trained, with well-aimed shots."
The insurgents had built a labyrinthine network of trenches in the farmland, with sleeping areas and weapons caches. Two anti-aircraft guns had been hidden away.
Insurgents were apparently able to establish a training camp after US forces moved out of the area in the fall of last year, Poppas said. Sunni Arab militants there are believed to be led, at least in part, by a man known as Abu Abdul Rahman, an Iraqi-Canadian who moved from Canada to Iraq in 1995, he said.
Abu Abdul Rahman was mentioned on some jihadist Web sites as a possible contender for the leadership of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia after the group's founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a US airstrike last summer, said Captain Mike Few, commander of A Troop, 5th Squadron.
Senior commanders training Iraqi army units say other rural areas of eastern and central Diyala where US forces have had little oversight have been transformed into camps similar to the one at Turki. The "graduates," many of whom belong to an umbrella group called the Sunni Council, then spread to urban areas like Baquba, the provincial capital, said Major Tim Sheridan, an intelligence officer. Sectarian violence is rampant in Diyala, where Sunni and Shiite militants are vying for control.
The battle at Turki began after Poppas and other soldiers flew over the area on a reconnaissance mission on Nov. 12. From the helicopters, they spotted a white car covered by shrubbery and a hole in the ground that appeared to be a hiding place. The colonel dropped off an eight-man team and later sent other soldiers to sweep the area.
Gunfire erupted on Nov. 15 when one unit ran into an ambush. The fighting eventually became so intense that the Americans called in airstrikes. A US captain and a lieutenant were killed by insurgents in separate firefights.