TIKRIT, Iraq – U.S. troops backed by attack helicopters and armored vehicles fought an overnight battle Friday on the outskirts of Tikrit (search) after coming under a coordinated attack that killed three soldiers and injured two.
Though U.S. troops come under near-daily attacks, the battle in and around the village of Al-Uja (search) was unusual both because of its intensity and length. The fighting lasted from 8 p.m. Thursday until daybreak, the military said.
The battle came as U.S. troops claimed a victory in their effort to track down remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime. Former Gen. Sultan Hashim Ahmad (search), Iraq's last defense minister, surrendered to an American commander Friday after weeks of negotiations.
Dawood Bagistani, who arranged the surrender to Maj. Gen. David Petraeus (search), said Ahmad was handed over "with great respect" and was with his family at the time.
Bagistani said the American military had promised to remove Ahmad's name from the list of 55 most-wanted, meaning he would not face indefinite confinement and possible prosecution.
Special treatment for Ahmad could be an effort to defuse the guerrilla-style attacks that are taking a toll on American soldiers. Many of the attackers are thought to be former soldiers in Saddam's army. Seeing their former military leader well-treated by the Americans might encourage them to lay down their arms.
In what the commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade called a "coordinated attack," Saddam loyalists attacked two operating bases on the western bank of the Tigris River and ambushed a patrol on its east side.
Three U.S. soldiers were killed and two were wounded, said Col. James Hickey, the 1st Brigade commander.
Two soldiers who were brought to a medical station in a blood-soaked vehicle were listed in stable condition, Hickey said.
He would not comment on Iraqi casualties but said 40 men of "military age" were arrested.
"We have under control the individuals who attacked our patrol," Hickey said. "We fought a battle throughout the night and well into first light"
The three attacks were carried out with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and assault rifles, he said.
The fighting took place among mud and brick houses that line the Tigris and among the hamlets that spread outwards from downtown Tikrit.
"The attack was beaten off," Hickey said. "We repositioned ourselves and immediately returned fire and counterattacked with ground and air forces and mechanized infantry."
Hickey said the attack showed remarkable coordination.
"It is unusual. We have seen instances of coordinated attacks two times in the past out of the scores of ambushes. But this one was coordinated and this something that worrying us and we are paying attention to it," Hickey said.
Numerous tips have led to scores of overnight raids around Tikrit and the military said the operations have led to a decrease in the number of attacks, mostly carried out with rockets and homemade bombs.
He said the military had received some warning that an attack was imminent and had increased it alert level. He said the large number of Iraqis detained was a direct consequence of the warning.
"Our reaction was faster than anticipated. They were sealed off," he said.
The attackers, he added, were what remained of Saddam loyalists carrying out attacks in the area.
"It's a handful, a rearguard that's attempting to maintain a degree of political relevance here. We're going to finish these guys off," Hickey said.