85 Militants Killed In Iraq

U.S. and Iraqi forces killed 85 militants at a suspected training camp along the marshy shores of a remote lake, one of the highest guerrilla death tolls of the two-year insurgency, officials said. They said citizens emboldened by the January elections are increasingly turning in intelligence tips.

The raid at Lake Tharthar in central Iraq turned up booby-trapped cars, suicide-bomber vests, weapons and training documents, Iraqi Maj. Gen. Rashid Feleih told state television. He said the insurgents included Iraqis, Filipinos, Algerians, Moroccans, Afghans and Arabs from neighboring countries.

"What's really remarkable is that the citizens this time really took the initiative to provide us with very good information," Feleih said Wednesday.

In three days, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials' accounts, troops have killed at least 128 insurgents nationwide, culminating in the announcement of Tuesday's attack by Iraqi commandos, backed by U.S. air and ground fire. On Sunday, U.S. soldiers killed 26 insurgents south of Baghdad, while a fight during an ambush on an Iraqi security envoy killed 17 militants on Monday.

"This string of successes does have positive repercussions in that it may convince Iraqis not supporting the insurgents — but not supporting the United States either — to perceive that the tide is turning and not go with the insurgents," said Nora Bensahel, a Washington-based Iraq analyst for Rand Corp.

But while it's been "a fairly successful few days," Bensahel cautioned that "there's a long, long way to go."

In other developments:

  • Politicians helping shape a post-election government expected within days said negotiators are considering naming a Sunni Arab as defense minister in a move aimed at bringing Sunni Arabs into the political process — and perhaps deflate the insurgency they lead.
  • A mortar shell or rocket landed on a primary school in western Baghdad, killing at least one child and injuring three others, according to a police official. Kids fled the schoolhouse, abandoning backpacks and books on desks littered with glass shards.
  • As of Tuesday, March 22, at least 1,523 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,162 died as a result of hostile action, according to the Defense Department. The figures include four military civilians.
  • The latest U.S. casualties reported were Marine Lance Cpl. Kevin S. Smith, 20, Springfield, Ohio; killed Monday in Iraq's Anbar province; and Army Spc. Francisco G. Martinez, 20, Fort Worth, Texas; killed Sunday in Tamin.

    The U.S. military gave the first report of the Lake Tharthar raid, saying that seven commandos and an unspecified number of militants were killed. The military declined Wednesday to confirm the Iraqi government's death toll of 85 militants, and it was impossible to check the figure independently.

    But 85 deaths would make the raid the heaviest hit militants have taken since the opening days of the U.S.-led attack in November on the city of Fallujah, where more than 1,000 insurgents died.

    U.S. Army Maj. Richard Goldenberg, a 42nd Infantry Division spokesman, said an estimated 80 to 100 insurgents were at the camp, 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of Ramadi, and that some insurgents fled with casualties before the area could be surrounded.

    Iraqi commandos were in the area to conduct a different raid, but tips from residents redirected them to the lakeside camp, Goldenberg said. An Iraqi officer said residents had been providing intelligence for 18 days before the attack.

    Iraqi officials also credited other successes to a torrent of intelligence that has begun flowing from citizens heartened by Jan. 30 elections and emboldened by film footage aired on state television that shows captured insurgents confessing their roles in attacks.

    "Before, the people had a neutral stance toward this issue," said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. "Now, they have turned against the terrorists."

    Kadhim said insurgents initially operated in small cells but that crackdowns have caused them to change tactics and gather in larger groups. They chose the lakeside camp because of its terrain, he said.

    "The area is full of marshes and lakes. It is hard to comb, and that's why the terrorists chose it," Kadhim said. "They used to use boats to get to the camp. It's difficult to get there, and to discover the location."

    Analysts, however, warned the spate of deadly clashes wasn't likely to end an insurgency believed to have thousands of supporters.

    "We're in a phase where it could be a tipping point one way or the other in terms of whether the insurgency is on a downward slope, with the elections moving things to the Iraq government more," said Marcus Corbin, an counterinsurgency specialist for the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. "But the real issue is the long-term political solution and what the power-sharing will be between the ethnic groups."

    On that front, politicians helping shape the emerging government said negotiators are considering naming a Sunni Arab as defense minister to try to bring that group into the political process — and perhaps deflate the Sunni-led insurgency.

    "The Defense Ministry will go to a Sunni Arab because we do not want Arab Sunnis to feel that they are marginalized," said Abbas Hassan Mousa al-Bayati, a top member of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance. "They will be given one of the four major posts because we want them to feel that they are part of the political formula."

    Sunni Arabs, dominant under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, largely stayed away from the balloting, either to honor a boycott or because they were afraid of being attacked.

    Kurds are thought to number between 15 to 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, with Sunni Arabs roughly equivalent. Shiite Arabs make up 60 percent of the population.