Assailants attacked a U.S. tank patrol on the outskirts of Balad, a rural area 30 miles north of Baghdad on Thursday. There were conflicting reports on casualties, with Central Command saying U.S. forces killed 27 insurgents but officers at the scene putting the number much lower, perhaps five or seven.
The figure of 27 would put the number of opposition fighters killed in all this week at about 100. It was the biggest American operation since the war ended two months ago.
Villagers claimed Saturday that five of the dead were civilians, including a 70-year-old man, apparently mistaken by U.S. troops for militants fleeing after attacking the tank patrol. Townspeople say the five men were trying to douse fires in their wheat fields set by U-S flares. U.S. commanders aren't commenting.
CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips says, "Already the stories have been circulating -- whether true or not -- that American troops have, to use the local phrase, been 'trrorizing'populations here (in Iraq) not necessarily hostile before. It's an old question: Does heavy-handed military action put down resistance, or create more?"
In other developments:
The tank ambush at Balad appeared to be part of a growing campaign of
violent resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Fighting intensified this week to its highest pitch since the war was declared over May 1 and was likely to escalate as U.S. forces press their crackdown on anti-American forces.
The operation, concentrated in areas north and west of Baghdad, targets what Central Command described as "Baath Party loyalists, paramilitary groups and other subversive elements."
Hundreds of people have been detained for interrogation in the sweep, which has triggered widespread anger among Iraqi townspeople over the heavy-handed tactics of American soldiers. By Saturday, all but a few of the detainees had been released.
The ambush at Balad started just before midnight Thursday, when a large force of insurgents detonated a land mine and fired rockets on a two-tank patrol of the 4th Infantry Division, said Lt. Col. Andy Fowler, a senior officer engaged in the chase.
The tanks returned fire, killing four assailants, U.S. Central Command said. The patrol called in reinforcements, including Apache helicopters, and gave chase to the fleeing attackers.
Fowler said the pursuit lasted through the night and into daylight Friday. Some attackers fled through sunflower fields and ducked into sand-brick houses.
But experts said the assault showed emerging American military straegy. American troops, hunkered inside thick armor and equipped with computer-guided weapons, run obtrusive patrols, hoping to taunt insurgents into action and lure them into the open where they would be overwhelmed by the superior U.S. weaponry.
"We will maintain that pressure, causing him to react to us, rather than vice versa," said Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, U.S. ground forces commander in Iraq. "Are there bad guys still out there? Absolutely. Are we going after them? Absolutely."
For weeks, American forces have been the targets of hit-and-run attacks, usually by individuals or small groups throwing grenades, or firing rockets or small arms, then fleeing. The tank ambush was unusual in the number of assailants and the coordination of the attack.