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Mideast edition, Saturday, August 18, 2007

As many as 60 insurgents battled with a group of Iraqi police and armed residents on Wednesday in the southern Baqouba district of Buhriz, the U.S. military said Friday.

The battle, which Iraqi officials said started with a mortar attack on the neighborhood, left as many as 14 people dead and 20 wounded — all civilians, Iraqi police said.

American military officials reported that more than 21 insurgents were killed in the gunbattle and in airstrikes by American helicopters called in to help. The number of deaths in Iraq incidents frequently differs when reported by American and Iraqi officials.

The battle took place while some 16,000 American and Iraqi troops are participating in operations around Baqouba, the Diyala provincial capital. The purpose of the operation, military officials said, is to track down insurgents who fled the city and were believed to have holed up in surrounding towns and villages.

According to U.S. and Iraqi accounts of the battle, Iraqi police and an armed civilian group called the Baqouba Guardians traded gunfire with dozens of insurgents, some wearing suicide bomb vests. American troops from the 1st Squadron, 12th Cavalry Regiment assisted the police and coordinated with the “Guardians” throughout the battle, said Maj. Robbie W. Parke, a U.S. military spokesman.

“They were involved in the operation in the ‘pursuit and exploitation’ phase through most of the day on the 15th,” Parke said.

The police “requested Coalition Force attack helicopter support after the first engagement. Attack helicopters arrived and engaged another large group of heavily armed fighters staging near the first attack site, killing or wounding an estimated 14 terrorists,” a military press release read.

Iraqi police said the battle lasted some three hours.

“I wouldn’t categorize forty to sixty insurgents as a large number,” Parke said. “It’s just a bit larger than a platoon, and it shows how much their operations have been disrupted.

“If you will recall from previous press releases in mid-June, the estimated enemy strength in western Baqubah when we started Operation Arrowhead Ripper was upwards of 500 [al-Qaida in Iraq] fighters.

“We liberated Baqubah — the so-called capital of the Islamic State of Iraq — from al-Qaida. I believe al-Qaida will continue to try to get a toe-hold back in Baqubah to regain lost ground … So far, they have been unsuccessful in their attempts and this is an example of their latest failure.”

“Baqouba should be proud of their security forces and their citizen guardians today,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Townsend, commander of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, was quoted as saying in the release. “All fought side-by-side and soundly defeated a complex attack from a determined enemy. This thing could have been much worse had those suicide bombers reached their targets.”

A U.S. military press release about the battle cast it as an “unprecedented combined action” between Iraqi police and armed citizens.

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