US says 25 militants killed in Iraq's Baquba

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BAGHDAD, Oct 5 (Reuters) About 25 suspected Iraqi militants were killed in an air strike today targeting a ''special groups'' commander working with Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the U.S.

military said.

US troops were engaged in what the military said was a heavy firefight west of Baquba, capital of volatile Diyala province, during a raid against a commander it said was linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Qods force.

Support aircraft were called in when US soldiers came under attack from militants firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, with one insurgent thought to have an anti-aircraft weapon.

''Perceiving hostile intent, support aircraft engaged, killing an estimated 25 criminals and destroying two buildings,'' the US military said in a statement.

Police and hospital sources said 25 people were killed and another 35 wounded in the US air strike in the village of Jezan al-Imam near Khalis, a town northwest of Baquba. They said four houses were also destroyed.

US commanders in Iraq have repeatedly accused Shi'ite Iran's Revolutionary Guards of training and arming Shi'ite militias in Iraq and supplying them with weapons, including rockets and roadside bombs, by far the biggest killers of US troops in Iraq.

Tehran denies the charge and blames the sectarian violence in Iraq, in which tens of thousands of Iraqis have died, on the 2003 US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

The operation early on Friday targeted what the US military described as a ''special groups'' commander, a term it often uses to describe militants it says are linked to Iran.

''Intelligence indicates he was responsible for facilitating criminal activity and is involved in the movement of various weapons from Iran to Baghdad,'' the statement said.

It did not say whether the man was among those killed.

While not specifically linking the man to the Mehdi Army militia loyal to fiery anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the military said it welcomed Sadr's pledge in late August to suspend all Mehdi Army operations for up to six months.

''We will not show the same restraint against those criminals who dishonour this pledge by attacking security forces and Iraqi citizens,'' the statement said.

The US military began a security crackdown in Baghdad in mid-February which then spread into other volatile areas across Iraq using a ''surge'' of 30,000 extra US troops in support of thousands of Iraqi security forces.

The crackdown, which came into full force in June, is aimed at Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and Shi'ite militias and has been credited for a significant drop in military and civilian casualties in recent weeks.

The ''surge'' was meant to buy time for political leaders to move more quickly towards legislative benchmarks set by Washington aimed at reconciling majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs who were dominant under Saddam.

Reuters SYU DB1334

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