Published September 23, 2010
During an afternoon raid, gunmen exchanged fire with American and Iraqi commandos. Panicked civilians ran for cover or grabbed weapons of their own. In the end, the death count included at least four suspected insurgents and seven civilians — perhaps more — during an attempt to catch an alleged key tactician for al-Qaida in Iraq.
The target got away.
The official reckoning of what happened Sept. 15 is still under wraps. Iraqi authorities have opened an investigation and the U.S. military declined to give details until the inquest is completed on the raid — some of the first major ground fighting for U.S. troops since President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations more than three weeks ago.
But accounts by Iraqi security officials and others to The Associated Press lay bare the rifts that still plague Iraqi society — including deep suspicion between Sunnis and Shiites and the resiliency of an insurgency that remains unbeaten and could yet draw American troops into more combat.
The raid also shows that U.S. forces can still be put on the front lines, and at high risk, to assist Iraqi commanders who are struggling with shortfalls in areas such as commando-style assaults and intelligence gathering.
"The Iraqi military is cognizant of its own limitations," said Michael Hanna, a military and political affairs analyst at the Century Foundation in New York. "So that while there is an eagerness to be in the lead, there is also a healthy dose of realism about their capacity."
On the military side, Fallujah represents the worries of an insurgent rebound. It was once a stronghold of Sunni militants — led by al-Qaida in Iraq — and the scene of intense block-by-block combat with U.S. troops in 2004 before local militias joined the fight and eventually uprooted the militant bases.
There are signs, however, that insurgents are attempting to claw back in the city they once controlled about 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad. On Sunday, a suicide car bomber struck an Iraqi army patrol in the city's busy commercial district, killing one soldier and at least four civilians.
Fallujah also underscores the Sunni-Shiite discord that ripples through all levels in Iraq — and could chip away at Iraq's security networks. That could mean calls by Iraq for wider U.S. military support even as the Pentagon seeks to complete its pullout by the end of next year.
Sunni officials in Fallujah — and across the Sunni-dominated Anbar province — increasingly allege that they are being sidelined by the Shiite-led authorities in Baghdad. The complaints often ring loudest from the Sunni sheiks and their militia factions, sometimes known as Awakening Councils, that joined the U.S.-led fight at the height of the insurgency four years ago.
The Sunni suspicions also have received a boost from Iraq's political limbo since March elections. A Sunni-backed coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi narrowly defeated a bloc headed Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but infighting has left Iraq unable to form a new government.
"Al-Qaida and the insurgency is not something that's going away soon," said Hadi Jalo, a political analyst at Baghdad University. "But sectarian divides and political uncertainty can only help them. We expect more and stronger attacks ... if the Americans leave or not."
The Sunni anger was particularly biting after last week's Fallujah fight. Sunni officials and Awakening Council leaders claimed that the Iraqi commanders did not inform them in advance and accused Iraqi-led forces of reckless tactics that put civilians in the crossfire.
A statement by Fallujah's Municipal Council called the raid a "terrorist operation ... motivated by the deep hatred of this city and its people" — a reference to the simmering distrust between Iraq's Sunnis and the Shiite majority that took power after the U.S.-led invasion.
Sheik Rafie Mishhin, a senior Awakening Council leader in Fallujah, complained that Iraqi forces "didn't respect Fallujah from both tribal and legal" codes by allegedly failing to bring local security forces and clan leaders into the loop on the raid plans.
"This puts at risk what we've achieved," he said. "We don't want to go back to the days of 2004 and 2005."
The U.S. military provided special forces alongside the Iraqi units, but the full details of the American role have not been disclosed.
Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, described it as a "partnered counter-terror" operation under the authority of the Iraqi government.
"Since the Iraqi government has opened an investigation into the operation, it would be inappropriate for us to go into any further details," he said in an e-mail to the AP.
Iraqi security officials said the target of the raid was a top al-Qaida operative known as Abu Ibrahim, who is believed to have taken over many strategic decisions for insurgents following an airstrike in April that killed the top two al-Qaida in Iraq leaders.
A joint team — Iraqi police and army and American special forces — was quickly put together under Iraqi command after a tip that Ibrahim was hiding in a residential area of southern Fallujah, the officials said. The unit came under heavy fire as it neared the suspected hideout and was pinned down for about 90 minutes.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
The civilian death toll remains unclear and could account for the slow disclosures by Iraqi leaders. A high number of Sunni civilian casualties could be an embarrassment to the government and complicate negotiations on a new government.
Shortly after the raid — which lasted about three hours — the U.S. military said Iraqi forces had killed four suspected militants and two civilians who came out of their homes with weapons drawn.
The city's Municipal Council gave a higher civilian death toll: seven, "including old men and children."
Iraq's Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, was quoted Wednesday as saying that security forces had "real and accurate" information that a top insurgent leader was at the hideout in Fallujah last week.
He told the Al Sabah newspaper that the suspect — whom he described as "al-Qaida's No. 2 in Iraq" — fled a half hour before the arrival of the U.S.-Iraqi team.