BAGHDAD (AFP) – American troops won a fierce battle outside Al-Qaeda’s former stronghold in western Iraq, the military said Tuesday, as commanders warned that recent victories must not be taken for granted.
US soldiers and marines backed with attack jets and helicopter gunships killed 23 insurgents in the weekend clash and foiled an apparent attempt to revive Al-Qaeda influence near the group’s former bastion of Ramadi.
Last year Al-Qaeda declared the western Iraqi city the capital of the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq” in defiance of the US-backed government and the American forces battling to regain control of Anbar province.
Since then, however, the Islamist group’s brutal attacks against civilians and local leaders have turned much of Anbar’s population against it and pushed tribal sheikhs into an alliance with the Americans.
Cities like Ramadi and Fallujah are now largely in the hands of US-backed Iraqi government forces and tribal levies, and commanders are hoping to help Iraqis begin the process of rebuilding their shattered towns.
Senior US officials including President George W. Bush have hailed the resulting turnaround in Anbar — where attacks are down dramatically — but US commanders warn that Al-Qaeda fighters have regrouped elsewhere.
“I don’t think that there’s any question that they’ve gone somewhere else,” Brigadier General John Allen, the second most senior US officer in western Iraq, told AFP in an interview before the latest battle in Anbar.
The fighting broke out on Saturday at Donkey Island on the Nassar Canal when two truck loads of gunmen opened fire on US forces, and ended a day later with US-led forces victorious.
The army’s Apache helicopters and the Marines’ F-15 and Harrier fighter jets launched strikes to support ground forces and destroyed the trucks, which were filled with weapons. At least 23 insurgents were killed, the military said.
The battle will be remembered among US troops for the bravery of an Apache crew which landed their two-man gunship, loaded a wounded comrade into the gunner’s seat and flew off with a crewman clinging onto a wing outside.
But the engagement will also be seen as a sign that, despite the optimism in Washington, Al-Qaeda has not yet given up on establishing a foothold in western Iraq and may yet find a way to reassert its influence.
“Al-Qaeda may have made their decision to consolidate their gains elsewhere where they may have a possibility of consolidation of gains,” Allen said.
“They had to swallow some pretty tough medicine, which was being ejected in large measure from Ramadi, the capital of the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’.
“The reporting we got was that that went down very hard and they now have to take some decisions, they’ve some pretty heavy casualties, they’re having some difficulties in Baghdad,” he said.
Allen predicted that Al-Qaeda would probably no longer seek to meet US forces head on in set-piece battles in Anbar, but warned that the group’s fighters may have surprises up their sleeves.
“Your question is: ‘Are they going somewhere else?’ We’re certain that they are … Are they planning a decisive battle somewhere to try to make their point again at kind of an ideological level? I don’t know,” he said.
The battle for Donkey Island and its aftermath also provided further evidence of the Islamist fighters’ eagerness to face death.
American troops searching the area on Sunday morning discovered 22 dead insurgents, including seven wearing suicide vests, as well as 24 homemade grenades, 20 roadside bombs, and other weapons.
“Most of the enemy were dressed in similar white dishdashas (ankle-length shirts) and white running shoes, an outfit often associated with extremist fighters prepared to kill themselves,” a military statement said.
Another insurgent was killed when clashes broke out in the afternoon.