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U.S. Helicopter Downed in Clash With Iraqi Guerrillas

American forces target 'terrorist training camp' in one of the largest raids since the war. Two Apache crew members are rescued unhurt.

June 13, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — U.S. forces pressed forward with a campaign to wipe out resistance fighters in central Iraq on Thursday, bombing what the authorities here called a "terrorist training camp," as guerrillas shot down an American helicopter gunship.

The intensity and scope of the attacks marked what an Army official called "one of the largest operations since the war" and demonstrated again how seriously the military takes the threat of irregular forces.

The U.S.-led attack took place about 95 miles north of Baghdad in a region of central Iraq that has become a hotbed of resistance, where U.S. soldiers were being ambushed and killed and paramilitary fighters were able to find refuge, Army officials said.

The bombs started to fall at about 1:45 a.m. Ground forces then rushed in and battled head to head, with one American soldier suffering minor wounds, according to the U.S. Central Command. During the conflict, Iraqi forces shot down the Apache gunship. The two crew members were rescued unhurt.

The raid occurred days after U.S. forces launched an operation dubbed Peninsula Strike, a land, air and sea assault on a Tigris River region that had long been a stronghold of Saddam Hussein's regime. More than 4,000 U.S. forces swept in early Monday morning, searching houses and detaining nearly 400 males from the area.

In the wake of that operation, U.S. forces were still fighting to root out what they called remnants of the old regime. In the town of Dhuluiya, north of Baghdad, 10 to 15 Iraqis were reported killed and four U.S. soldiers suffered gunshot wounds.

Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of ground forces in Iraq, said that when his troops entered the region, they came across leaflets that promised a cash reward for killing soldiers.

"Are there bad guys out there? Absolutely," McKiernan told a news conference. "Are we going after them? Absolutely."

From the moment reinforcements began to pour into this region, they found what they were looking for. One military unit, a scout patrol, moved up from Baghdad a week ago.

As the unit pulled into the town of Balad, Army officials said, its members found 15 men dressed in black uniforms lying in the grass. They were waiting to ambush a military convoy coming up the road.

The scouts opened fire with their machine guns. They later recovered one body and other remains, an AK-47 rifle and a bag of hand grenades, according to one of the officers involved in the attack.

But that was just the beginning. A few days later the Army opened a multi-front attack on a region that is a stronghold of Sunni Muslim supporters of Hussein.

Though the fighting continued Thursday, soldiers in Dhuluiya said they were easing up slightly on the community, hoping to begin to win residents' cooperation.

Some of the prisoners had been released, while about 200 were still being held, said an officer working inside the town.

Maj. Michael Fenzel of the 173rd Airborne said it appeared that some of the prisoners were "valuable" targets and it would be inappropriate for them to be released too quickly. He added that questioning would continue.

"We're getting good intelligence," he said.

This region, a lush arc of farmland that juts into the Tigris, was a stronghold of the former regime, and it became a sanctuary for pro-Hussein forces in part because the U.S. Army never moved in. That left a vacuum that allowed guerrilla fighters to come.

Residents who had been detained said U.S. interrogators asked whether they had seen Gen. Ali Hassan Majid, the man known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering gas attacks against ethnic Kurds in 1988. U.S. officials thought that they had killed him during the war but now believe that he may be alive.

In a separate incident, a U.S. F-16 fighter jet crashed Thursday southwest of Baghdad. The pilot ejected safely, and the crash is under investigation.

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Times wire services contributed to this report.

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