US, Iraqi forces kill 15 gunmen in big battle

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BAGHDAD, Nov 13 (Reuters) US and Iraqi forces killed an estimated 15 al Qaeda gunmen during a fierce battle south of Baghdad after the militants launched a major attack on recently formed neighbourhood patrols, the US military said today.

The military said up to 45 al Qaeda fighters launched a mortar attack and then assaulted two checkpoints manned by local security guards yesterday using a mix of small arms and heavy-calibre machineguns mounted on trucks in a day-long fight.

US F-16 warplanes dropped two 500 lb bombs during the battle in the town of Adwaniya, 20 km southeast of Baghdad. The area has long been a haven for al Qaeda in Iraq, which is blamed for most suicide bomb attacks in Iraq.

The al Qaeda raid marked one of the biggest attacks on neighbourhood patrols, many of which are paid by the US military, since a programme to increase their numbers picked up steam in and around Baghdad a few months ago. Two from the patrol were killed in the battle.

Officials in the Shi'ite-led government view the formation of such armed groups, which are predominantly made up of Sunni Arabs, with suspicion and as a potential threat to the administration. A number of local guards are former insurgents who have since turned against al Qaeda.

Colonel Terry Ferrell, commander of US troops in the Adwaniya area, said U.S. and Iraqi ground forces and US helicopters and warplanes were used to repel the attack. The 100-strong Adwaniya ''concerned citizens'' unit was only set up a week ago.

''The attack was focused specifically on the concerned citizens and on their checkpoints,'' Ferrell told Reuters, using the US military name for the neighbourhood patrols.

''The concerned citizens fought back valiantly as long as they had ammunition. It was very impressive.'' Such groups first emerged last year when Sunni Arab tribal leaders, tired of al Qaeda's indiscriminate killings and strict interpretation of Islam, set up neighbourhood police units in Anbar province in western Iraq.

Anbar, once the heart of the Sunni Muslim insurgency, is now relatively peaceful, and the U.S. military has been spreading Anbar's model into other Sunni Arab and Shi'ite areas.

About 70,000 Iraqis have so far been registered across Iraq under the neighbourhood security plan.

REBUILDING CHECKPOINTS Ferrell said Iraqi army troops quickly responded when checkpoints north and south of Adwaniya were attacked after the initial mortar bombing.

He said two of the 100-strong neighbourhood police unit were killed and several others were wounded.

''They went back in late evening yesterday and reoccupied the checkpoints as the attack waned. They are rebuilding the checkpoints,'' Ferrell said.

Most of the al Qaeda casualties were caused by small arms and artillery fire rather than by the two 500-pound bombs, which were dropped to block escape routes, Ferrell said.

Some US military commanders have cited the neighbourhood patrols as a factor helping to sharply reduce violence in Iraq in the past few months, especially around Baghdad and in areas where al Qaeda once had a strong presence.

But while violence has declined across Iraq, US commanders have warned al Qaeda might try to stage a comeback.

Iraqi state television reported that authorities had found seven cars rigged with bombs in the Sunni-stronghold of Adhamiya in Baghdad. It was unclear when the cars were discovered.

REUTERS SBC YA BD2245

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