Baghdad, June 12 (Reuters): US forces attacked a guerrilla camp northwest of Baghdad today with air raids and ground troops, and battled irregular Iraqi fighters who brought down an Apache helicopter in the west of Iraq.
Lieutenant General David McKiernan, the senior US commander in Iraq, declined to say whether the Apache was shot down during the assault on what the US army called a “terrorist training camp”. He said the camp was attacked with “lethal force” in an operation that was still under way.
A US army statement said the two-member crew of the Apache AH-64 were rescued unhurt, and two other Apaches engaged Iraqi fighters in the area. It was the first time a US helicopter had been shot down since the end of the Iraq war.
Officials in the US-led administration said several Iraqis had been killed in the raid on the guerrilla camp 150 km north-west of Baghdad.
The army said the raid was part of “the continued effort to eradicate Baath Party loyalists, paramilitary groups and other subversive elements”, but gave no details on the camp.
The US army said it launched a coordinated air strike on the camp in the early hours today, before soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division moved in.
“A direct firefight ensued with ground forces,” it said. “One coalition soldier received minor wounds.”
In a separate incident, a US F-16 fighter plane crashed today southwest of Baghdad, but the pilot ejected safely, the US military said. The crash was under investigation.
US commanders say supporters of Saddam Hussein are behind a wave of deadly attacks on US troops in recent weeks.
McKiernan said leaflets had been found in the restive areas around Baghdad offering locals rewards for killing US troops. But he said pro-Saddam fighters were on the defensive.
“Are there bad guys still out there' Absolutely,” he told a news conference. “Are we going after them' Absolutely.”
The US launched a major operation on Monday to crack down on Iraqi guerrillas north of Baghdad.
Operation Peninsula Strike, the largest US operation in Iraq since the end of the war, involves some 4,000 troops scouring an area around the Tigris river northeast of the tense town of Balad, US officials said.
A combined US force, Task Force Ironhorse, has been raiding suspected guerrilla hideouts from the air, land and river. A curfew has been imposed in the area.
Angryresidents near Balad showed a Reuters television crew ransacked houses, and said residents had been assaulted during the US operation. In some houses, furniture had been overturned and beds upended. Books and ornaments were scattered on the floor. Locals said US troops had caused the damage.
“We couldn’t communicate with the soldiers when they came into the house,” Hudhifa Mohammed said. “They hit my father, and fired shots. They handcuffed us and took us away.”
Locals say that the recent attacks have been sparked by rising anger at the behaviour of US troops, not by loyalty to Saddam.
The US army said 397 Iraqis were detained in the raids this week and four US troops were wounded by Iraqi resistance. It said 59 of the detainees had been released.
Some 40 US soldiers have been killed in attacks and ambushes in Iraq since Saddam’s overthrow two months ago.
The attacks have been concentrated in Baghdad and two nearby areas — to the west around Ramadi and Falluja, and to the north around Balad, Baquba and Tikrit, Saddam’s home town.
McKiernan said the attacks were locally organised and there was no sign that it was being directed centrally by senior Saddam loyalists — or the elusive Saddam himself. “There is no evidence to say that Saddam Hussein is behind it,” he said.