U.S., Iraqi Forces Kill 85 Militants

Iraq's insurgency has suffered steep losses in recent days, including Wednesday's announcement of 85 guerrilla deaths in a joint U.S.-Iraq raid on a suspected training camp. Officials said citizens emboldened by recent elections are increasingly turning in tips against the militants.

In three days, U.S. and Iraqi troops have killed at least 128 militants nationwide, and the Wednesday announcement that 85 insurgents died in an attack by Iraqi commandos, backed by U.S. air and ground fire, marked one of the heaviest single-day tolls suffered by Iraqi militants in the two-year insurgency.

"This string of successes does have positive repercussions in that it may convince Iraqis not supporting the insurgents -- but not supporting the United States either -- to perceive that the tide is turning and not go with the insurgents," said Nora Bensahel, a Washington D.C.-based Iraq analyst for Rand Corp (search).

While Bensahel acknowledged it had been "a fairly successful few days," she added: "There's a long, long way to go."

The U.S. military gave the first report of Tuesday's noontime raid on the shores of Lake Tharthar (search) in central Iraq, saying that seven commandos and an unspecified number of militants were killed.

On Wednesday, the Iraqi government said in a statement that 85 rebels had died in the clash -- the heaviest hit militants have taken since the opening days of the November U.S.-led attack on the one-time insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, where more than 1,000 insurgents died.

The U.S. military declined Wednesday to confirm the Iraqi government's death toll of 85 militants, and it was impossible to independently check the number.

On Sunday, clashes with U.S. soldiers south of Baghdad left 26 insurgents dead, while a fight during an ambush on an Iraqi security envoy Monday killed 17 militants.

An officer in charge of the Iraqi commandos said Tuesday's raid turned up booby-trapped cars, suicide-bomber vests, weapons and training documents and that a number of Philippines, a fighter from Afghanistan, and Arabs from nearby countries he didn't name were among the insurgents.

Nearby residents had been providing intelligence on the camp for 18 days before the attack, Maj. Gen. Rashid Feleih told Iraqi state television.

"What's really remarkable is that the citizens this time really took the initiative to provide us with very good information," he said.

Iraqi officials also credited other successes to a torrent of intelligence that has begun flowing from citizens heartened by Jan. 30 elections, in addition to film footage aired on state television that showed captured insurgents confessing their role in attacks.

"After the elections and after showing the arrested terrorists on television, the people started calling the Interior Ministry and giving us a lot of information. This helped us," said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the ministry.

"Before, the people had a neutral stance toward this issue. Now, they have turned against the terrorists."

Analysts, however, warned the spate of deadly clashes wasn't likely to end an insurgency believed to have thousands of supporters.

"We're in a phase where it could be a tipping point one way or the other in terms of whether the insurgency is on a downward slope, with the elections moving things to the Iraq government more," said Marcus Corbin, an counterinsurgency specialist for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Defense Information.

"But the real issue is the long-term political solution and what the power-sharing will be between the ethnic groups."

On that front, politicians helping shape the post-election government expected within days said negotiators are considering naming a Sunni Arab as defense minister in a move aimed at bringing Sunni Arabs into the political process -- and perhaps deflate the insurgency they lead.

Abbas Hassan Mousa al-Bayati, a top member of the United Iraqi Alliance, said negotiators from his Shiite-dominated bloc and a Kurdish coalition could tap a Sunni Arab to head the Defense Ministry, which oversees the Iraqi army battling the insurgency.

"The Defense Ministry will go to a Sunni Arab because we do not want Arab Sunnis to feel that they are marginalized," al-Bayati told The Associated Press. "They will be given one of the four major posts because we want them to feel that they are part of the political formula."

Sunni Arabs, dominant under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, largely stayed away from the balloting amid calls for them to boycott and threats against voters by the Sunni-led rebellion.

Political leaders have in the past announced plans on filling cabinet positions, only to reverse themselves later.

Al-Bayati said his group and the Kurdish coalition, which together won 215 seats in the new 275 seat National Assembly, were expected to name a president on Saturday, the next step toward forming a new government. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani is expected to fill the post.

Fuad Masoum, a member of the Kurdish negotiating team, said no definitive decisions on divvying up the 32-member Cabinet have been made. He declined to confirm that a Sunni Arab will be named defense minister, but said that it was one option under consideration.

The army chief of staff could be a Shiite, al-Bayati said, adding that his bloc was pressing for a Shiite to also head the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police -- Iraq's other main security force.

Kurds are thought to number between 15 to 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, with Sunni Arabs roughly equivalent. Shiite Arabs make up 60 percent of the population.

In other violence:

-- A mortar shell or rocket landed on a primary school in western Baghdad, killing at least one child and injuring three others, according to a police official who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution by attackers.

-- A policeman attempting to defuse a roadside bomb in Baghdad died when the charge exploded and another officer suffered injuries, police Cap. Talib Thamir said.

-- A suicide car bomb blast in the northern city of Mosul hit a convoy of Iraqi and U.S. soldiers, injuring four, including two who quickly returned to duty, the U.S. military said.

-- An explosion that destroyed a car in western Baghdad killed two civilians and injured three, police Maj. Mousa Hussein said.

-- A previously unknown group calling itself the Protectors of Islam Brigade released a video showing a man apparently held hostage by gunmen and called on the German government to intervene on behalf of the man, who identified himself as a journalist and said he had a German passport. The video was delivered anonymously to the Baghdad offices of Time Magazine, which shared its contents with The Associated Press. The authenticity of the kidnap claim could not be verified.

-- Clashes between insurgents and Iraqi commandos forces near Ramadi left two gunmen killed and two injured, an Iraqi commandos official said. Six commandos were wounded, said Brig. Gen. Mohammed Azzawi, the commandos commander in the Anbar province.