U.S. troops kill at least 97 in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. troops have killed 27 Iraqis who ambushed a tank patrol, after killing at least 70 at a guerrilla camp the day before, in the bloodiest clashes since President George W. Bush declared major combat over.

The U.S. military has launched two big operations west and north of Baghdad this week to try to root out what it says are diehard Saddam Hussein loyalists behind a recent spate of attacks on American troops in mainly Sunni Muslim areas.

A U.S. statement on Friday said an organised group of fighters had fired rocket-propelled grenades at a 4th Infantry Division tank patrol in Balad, about 60 miles from the capital.

“The tanks returned fire, killing four of the attackers, and forcing the remainder to flee,” it said. “Tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles reinforced with AH-64 Apache helicopters pursued the enemy personnel, killing 23 of the attackers.”

No U.S. casualties were reported in the clash.

Some 4,000 troops have been scouring an area around the Tigris river northeast of Balad since Monday in “Operation Peninsula Strike”, which the military said was the biggest operation it had launched in the past six weeks.

In the other big assault, launched early on Thursday, at least 70 people were killed at a “terrorist” training camp in northwest Iraq, a U.S. military spokesman said on Friday.

He said the 101st Airborne Division and special operations units were involved in the raid that began with an air strike on the camp, 90 miles northwest of Baghdad. One U.S. soldier was wounded. The operation was still in progress.

The spokesman said a U.S. helicopter had been shot down during the operation on Thursday. The Apache`s two-member crew were rescued unhurt as two other Apaches engaged irregular Iraqi fighters. It was the first time a U.S. helicopter had been shot down since the fall of Baghdad on April 9.

Missiles, Grenades, Rifles Found

The statement said 70 to 80 SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles, 75 to 78 rocket-propelled grenades and a score of AK-47 assault rifles had been found at the suspected training camp.

U.S. officials have released no other details on the camp, though one said the military believed that some of those present were not Iraqis. Arab volunteers from several countries fought with Iraqi forces during the war launched on March 20.

Bush had accused Saddam of having links to Osama bin Laden`s al Qaeda network. The former Iraqi leader denied this and the United States has provided no conclusive evidence.

Some 40 U.S. soldiers have been killed in attacks and ambushes in Iraq since the beginning of May.

The U.S. military says this week`s operations are part of “the continued effort to eradicate Baath Party loyalists, paramilitary groups and other subversive elements”.

The attacks have been concentrated in Baghdad and two nearby areas — to the west around Ramadi and Falluja, and to the north around Balad, Baquba and Tikrit, Saddam`s home town.

These are the heartlands of the Sunni tribes and clans that formed Saddam`s main powerbase. But some locals say hostility to U.S. troops is due to rising anger at the way they carry out searches and raids, not loyalty to the Baath party.

The U.S. statement reported three other hit-and-run attacks on American troops in the past two days, but no casualties on either side. Six Iraqis were detained.

In northern Iraq, Turkey said investigations were under way to establish whether sabotage was to blame for a blast on a section of pipeline from the Kirkuk oilfields.

U.S. engineers said there was a fire on the main oil export pipeline from Kirkuk to Turkey`s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, but said it was due to a gas leak.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said in an early reaction: “Unfortunately there was sabotage there.”

But a Foreign Ministry official said later Ankara had not yet received conclusive evidence on whether the blast was caused by a leak or sabotage.