Mar. 24, 2005 – US and Iraqi military officials gave inconsistent accounts of what they both say was a major assault Tuesday on a remote rebel training camp. Divergent reports about the nature of the battle and the number of rebel fighters killed raise far more questions than they provide answers.
Reuters initially reported that Iraqi government commandos attacked an isolated camp some 100 miles northwest of Baghdad Tuesday morning. When insurgents returned fire, the commandos reportedly called for US air and ground support.
Colonel Robert Potter, a spokesman for the US Army in Baghdad, told the New York Times, the assault was "one of the largest such engagements that I'm aware of."
An unnamed Iraqi source at a joint US-Iraqi command center in Tikrit told Reuters that Iraqi forces killed 80 insurgents, while only eleven commandos died. He said the fierce battle lasted twelve hours.
But Major Richard Goldenberg, a spokesperson for the 42nd Infantry Division, told Reuters the battle lasted only two hours and that seven members of the Iraqi assault force died and just six sustained wounds. He did not say how many rebel fighters died.
The Associated Press also initially reported that commandos killed 80 in an assault on a "terrorist camp" near Lake Tharthar, attributing this information to an Iraqi Colonel named Ahmed Essa. The US military issued a statement saying that 20 insurgents had been captured but did not provide rebel casualty figures, according to the AP.
Lieutenant Colonel Samad Hassan Kamel, an Iraqi commander whose unit reportedly led the assault, later told Reuters that commandos killed 45 insurgents, many of whom he said were Saudis and Syrians. In yet another report, Reuters quoted Sabah Kadhim, a spokesperson for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, as saying that commandos killed 84 insurgents. "Among the dead are Arab and foreign fighters, including Sudanese, Algerians and Moroccans, as well as other nationalities," Kadhim said.
General Adnan Thabet, identified by Agence France Presse as a senior security advisor to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, said 85 insurgents died in what was a seventeen hour assault by Iraqi troops and US aircraft on a camp shared by Baâ€™ath party loyalists and members of Al-Qaeda. Reportedly speaking from Samarra, Thabet told AFP that US "air raids" killed 50 insurgents, while Iraqi commandos killed 35, indicating that US forces played a significant role in the assault.
Thabet added that the raid resulted in no prisoners, but that several militants "escaped by boat" across the lake. Kadhim, the Interior Ministry spokesman, told the AP that twenty boats escaped during the raid.
It appears the assault force may have conducted the raid prematurely. Maj. Goldenberg admitted that the area was not surrounded by security forces until after an uncertain number escaped.
According to the AP, Goldenberg indicated that the raid was somewhat spontaneous, as Iraqi security forces were actually in the area to raid a different target when locals alerted them to the alleged base camp at Lake Tharthar. But the AP also cited an unnamed "Iraqi officer" as saying the siteâ€™s existence was known for eighteen days in advance, though reports did not indicate what agencies or units were aware of the target before yesterdayâ€™s raid was planned.
US military officials said the camp housed between 80 and 120 insurgents who were planning attacks on Iraqi cities, and that the role of US troops was only to provide helicopter support for Iraqi forces, CNN reported.
US and Iraqi accounts also diverged on the exact location of the training camp. According to CNN, US military sources said the camp was located west of Lake Tharthar, along the border of Salahuddin and Anbar provinces. Iraqi officials, on the other hand, said the camp was near Samarra, which is located east of the lake. Finally, the caption on a Reuters photo purportedly taken at the site of the raid refers to the location as "near Tikrit," which is more than 30 miles east-northeast of the northernmost point of Lake Tharthar.
According to a fourth report posted by Reuters yesterday, the Iraqi government released a statement claiming that "special police commandos" raided a "terrorist training camp" Tuesday, killing 85 insurgents and capturing only one, an unidentified Algerian. The statement made no mention of wounded insurgents and did not explain the relatively low casualty figures for Iraqi forces compared to the number of insurgents killed.
Both Reuters and AFP also reported that a group calling itself the Islamic Army of Tikrit issued a notice saying that only eleven insurgents had died in the firefight, while rebels killed "many more" police commandos.
According to the New York Times, Maj. Goldenberg said US and Iraqi forces were still searching the site of the assault on Wednesday, but an Iraqi commando who participated in the raid reportedly told AFP that both Iraqi and US troops withdrew from the site early Tuesday evening.
On Wednesday, an AFP reporter visited the crater ridden site of a camp near Lake Tharthar where rebels moved about in the open. According to a man claiming to be a member of the Secret Islamic Army, government forces had attacked that camp but only killed eleven rebels. The man and dozens of fellow fighters, he said, had not left the area since the firefight ended.
Also according to the AFP, local hospitals reported no casualties.
Photographic and videotape evidence supporting the various claims by US and Iraqi officials appears to be lacking. Reutersâ€™ photographs show only what appears to be a burned out truck near a lake and a small campsite that looks as though it has been bombed or damaged by fire. A report posted online Wednesday by Associated Press Television mentioned the assault, but did not include any video from the scene.