Wed, Jun 27, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Iraqi insurgent fighters escape

BLENDING IN Militants have resorted to the familiar tactic of battling US troops only to leave or melt into the population when threatened with overwhelming firepower

AGENCIES , BAQUBAH AND DEWANIYAH, IRAQ

One week after US forces mounted their assault on insurgent strongholds in western Baqubah, at least half of the estimated 300 to 500 fighters who were there have escaped or are still at large, the colonel who is leading the attack said on Monday.

Colonel Steve Townsend told a group of journalists that the US soldiers had wrested control over most of the area from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, deprived the insurgent group of its nominal capital and made some headway in protecting the residents from reprisals by militants.

But he acknowledged that his forces had not killed or captured as many of the insurgents as he had hoped.

"We are on our way to securing the population of Baqubah, which is what we came here to do," said the colonel, who commands the third Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division. "I am pretty satisfied, with the exception of my own goal to kill and capture as many as possible so we don't have to fight them somewhere else."

The US forces had sought to trap the insurgents in the city by establishing a cordon around the western section of Baqubah in the early hours of the operation. Senior military commanders said last week that the top leaders had left the city well before they tried to seal it off, but that they hoped to kill or apprehend many of the remaining fighters. But the account from Townsend indicates that many of those fighters also eluded capture, by posing as ordinary citizens or leaving the city.

Townsend said reports from the field showed that there were more than 100 insurgent casualties; his conservative count was that 49 of them had been killed. More than 60 suspected insurgents have also been captured, he added.

"When I came here I thought there were 300 to 500 fighters in there because that is what the intelligence told me," he said. "Does that mean that half or more eluded us? I guess it does."

During the week of fighting, the insurgents made use of their wea-pon of choice: concealed or buried bombs. They also engaged in firefights and had roving teams armed with rocket-propelled grenades.

But the insurgents have yet to make a final stand. So far, they have resorted to a familiar tactic: tangling with the US troops only to melt into the population when faced with overwhelming US firepower.

Townsend said that the fight was not drawing to a close and that he expected the insurgents to carry out fresh attacks.

"The enemy has done what I would do in his shoes," he said. "He has largely tried to melt away after putting up initial resistance. So, yes, I expect the enemy will come back."

In a sense, senior US military commanders in Baghdad turned out to be their own worst enemy when it came to catching the insurgents by surprise. They talked publicly about the need to mount military operations in Diyala Province, where Baqubah is located.

"The coalition was very open, very public about our intentions to come to Baqubah as part of the surge," Townsend said.

Beyond that, some insurgents appeared to have been tipped off, he said.

"Then we have reason to believe that some left immediately prior to the operation," he said. "How they got that word I don't know."

Meanwhile clashes erupted in the central Iraqi city of Diwaniyah yesterday between Shiite militiamen and local security forces following an attack on an Iraqi army patrol, officials said.

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