- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

RAWA, Iraq — Deep in the desolate, bone-dry wasteland of western Iraq, strong evidence has emerged that organized groups of foreign Islamic fighters are involved in the widespread armed resistance to American forces.

More than 70 Iraqi and Arab fighters were killed on Thursday in a crushing assault by U.S. forces on their camp next to a creek near Rawa, a town on the Euphrates River about 50 miles from Syria.

Packets of Algerian tobacco, paperwork from Egypt and Yemen, and Saudi religious tracts and shopping tags were found among the scorched ruins of the camp yesterday by the Sunday Telegraph, the first British journalists to reach the remote location.

Local people who buried the bodies within 24 hours, in keeping with Muslim teaching, recognized just one man. They said they believe that the rest of the heavily armed group, which arrived in a packed truck last weekend and set up camp in the desert, was a mixture of foreigners and Iraqis from other parts of the country.

The raid, on what U.S. Central Command called a “terrorist training camp,” provides the first significant indication that militants from other Arab countries who came to Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion are still operating in the tribal lands west of Baghdad.

The attack began with an aerial pounding shortly after midnight and is thought to have followed a tip about the group’s whereabouts from an informant within the fighters’ ranks or from Rawa.

Although the nationalities of the men are not known, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Algeria provided most of the volunteers for Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

Scattered on the ground were approximately 20 pairs of crumpled black trousers and jackets — the uniform of the fanatical Fedayeen Saddam — Saddam’s Martyrs. Military rucksacks and kitbags lay alongside, as well as civilian clothes and training shoes. The remains of a medical kit of bandages, syringes, painkillers and sutures suggested the fighters had been well-equipped.

Along a gully, the remnants of the group’s arms cache stretched for hundreds of yards. About 30 hand-held surface-to-air missile launchers, countless missiles, mortar rounds and flares, and the remnants of rocket-propelled grenades, were strewn across the ground.

The scorched face of the rock escarpment where the fighters had pitched their tents bore testimony to the ferocity of the attack.

They probably thought they had found an ideal hiding place next to the bullrushes of a stream in otherwise unforgiving terrain; instead it became a shooting gallery from which there was no escape.

With temperatures approaching 120 degrees, the stench of rotting bodies escaped from the newly dug graves. The cover of a Koran, a white robe and the coil of a headdress were laid across one. Elsewhere shards of wood marked the spot where body parts had been covered.

Locals from Rawa said that they had found no identity cards or passports, but it was not clear whether they had been destroyed in the attack or removed by U.S. troops.

The raid was led by air-assault units from the 101st Airborne Division, soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division and Special Forces. After the site was pounded from the air, troops landed by helicopter to finish off the resistance. One U.S. soldier was injured in the ferocious firefight.

The Americans suffered one military setback when an Apache helicopter was shot down about a mile from the battleground, apparently by a small, separate band of fighters. The two-man crew was rescued unhurt by U.S. Special Forces, who left six fighters dead at the site before the downed helicopter was removed by an Army crane and truck.

The operation represented a new stage in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Troops were sent in for the first time since the war to pummel enemy fighters with the same sort of overwhelming force deployed in the advance on Baghdad.

North of Baghdad, 4,000 American troops continued their biggest postwar operation, code named Peninsula Strike, to root out pro-Saddam Hussein elements that have staged repeated ambushes on U.S. forces in Iraq’s Sunni Muslim tribal heartlands.

The goal was to capture and interrogate suspected Ba’ath Party loyalists, although 27 Iraqis were also killed in the operation on Friday after a grenade attack on a U.S. tank.

Early today, U.S. Army units worked to seal off the conservative town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, intending to raid the homes of suspected militia leaders and search for illegal weapons.

Soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade targeted locations where intelligence reports indicated militia operations were under way or weapons stockpiled for use against U.S. forces. The operation was called Spartan Scorpion.

The initial thrust against the city 37 miles from the capital met no resistance.

The change in U.S. tactics came as an Arabic newspaper based in London published a letter, purportedly from Saddam, threatening attacks in countries whose troops occupy Iraq.

The three-page fax is likely to provide succor to anti-American factions in Iraq, although its authenticity is impossible to verify.

Senior U.S. officials have acknowledged that the failure to locate or capture the ousted dictator or his sons has helped fuel the upsurge in resistance. Forty Americans have been killed in attacks and accidents since the start of May when President Bush declared the war effectively at its end.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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