For the second time in less than a week, US forces were embroiled in deadly fighting against insurgents — a reminder of the ongoing dangers those forces face well after US President Barack Obama declared a formal end to combat.
With a persistent insurgency, ongoing sectarian tensions and no agreement on a new government after six months of wrangling, stabilizing Iraq before all US forces leave still seems a distant dream.
The raid on Wednesday, in which at least six people were killed, took place in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah — highlighting the persistent danger that al-Qaeda-linked militants still pose despite years of efforts by both Iraqi and US forces to root them out.
Insurgents seem to have redoubled their efforts this summer to target Iraqi security forces taking over from the departing US — nine Iraqi soldiers died on Wednesday in a roadside bombing while two police officers in Baghdad were shot and killed. The militants are trying to undermine the so-called “Sons of Iraq” — the anti-al-Qaeda militia that was instrumental in reducing violence.
The anger with which Fallujah officials reacted to the raid — conducted by Iraqi troops from Baghdad instead of local forces — spotlights another persistent threat to Iraq’s security: deep divisions between the minority Sunnis in places like Fallujah and the Shiite majority that rules the country.
Details of the raid were murky. US officials described it as an Iraq-led mission targeting al-Qaeda-linked militants with the US in an advisory capacity. Officials in Anbar Province railed against the raid, calling it a heavy-handed attack that left civilians dead.
US troops were helping Iraqi forces hunt down a senior al-Qaeda operative when militants opened fire on Iraqi security forces as they and the US soldiers approached a building in which the suspect was hiding, US Major Rob Phillips said.
He said Iraqi forces killed four suspected militants as well as two residents in nearby houses who came out of their homes with weapons drawn.
He did not know if the US forces ever opened fire or the exact role they played, but he said as long as the Iraqi forces that the US are advising are at risk, “we’re still in as much danger as they are.”
A White House spokesman referred requests for comment to local US military officials.
Officials in Fallujah and Anbar Province portrayed the raid in a different light.
Fallujah police chief Brigadier General Mahmoud al-Essawi said local police did not take part and were told by commanders of the joint US-Iraqi unit that their help was not needed.
Iraqi forces sometimes bring in troops from outside an area to do raids or make arrests because they worry that the local forces, especially police, can be infiltrated by insurgents.
The city’s municipal council criticized the raid and said in a statement that seven civilians were killed, “including old men and children.”
Five people were injured, the statement said, adding that the raiding force faced no resistance. Hospital officials confirmed the death toll.
“The people of Fallujah denounce this terrorist operation ... motivated by the deep hatred of this city and its people,” the statement said, referring to the distrust between the Shiite majority and the Sunni city.
In the early years of the war, Fallujah was synonymous with the insurgency, drawing in people from Saudi Arabia and Yemen who wanted to fight the US.