A group of about 70 Iraqis who attacked a Marine Corps unit in Ramadi were trained military fighters who disappeared after the battle, defense officials said yesterday.
According to a news photographer who was with the Marines in Ramadi, the fighting on Tuesday began with a series of well-coordinated daylight ambushes of Marine patrols and escalated into heavy fighting.
The well-armed attackers were in groups of 10 or 15, according to David Swanson, a Philadelphia Inquirer photographer who witnessed the attacks.
The Iraqi military group that attacked Ramadi was described as “regime remnants” by Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.
Gen. Myers said it is too soon after the battle, which killed 12 Marines and wounded 20 others, to characterize the fighters, but he said Marines are in control of Ramadi. Scores of the Iraqi fighters were killed.
“Former regime elements can be former Ba’athists, they can be Iraqi extremists, they can be outside jihadists, they can be Zarqawi network folks as well,” Gen. Myers said, referring to the al Qaeda-related terrorist network headed by Abu Zarqawi.
Other officials said later that most of the fighters in Ramadi appeared to be a trained group of Iraqis, possibly made up of Special Republican Guard troops from the former Saddam Hussein regime.
Another defense official said the fighting in Ramadi and yesterday in Fallujah was prompted by a U.S. military offensive against the former regime fighters in the area.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said increased violence by fighters opposed to the new Iraq government was expected as the June 30 deadline for handing over control of the country to the new government approaches.
Mr. Rumsfeld also said he does not believe Iraq is out of control, although he said Najaf currently is run by Shi’ite opposition fighters
“You have a mixture of a small number of terrorists, a small number of militias, coupled with some demonstrations and some lawlessness,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “And it’s a serious problem. And the problem’s being worked.”
Mr. Rumsfeld added that U.S. military forces in Iraq may leave up to 20,000 troops in the country who are scheduled to return home as part of a troop rotation. The troops could be used to counter increased fighting that killed 35 soldiers in the past several days.
This option is being reviewed by Pentagon leaders and Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, which controls forces in Iraq. No decision on the extension has been made, an official said.
There are currently about 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including a large Marine Corps force deployed to the country recently, resulting in the extra 20,000 troops.
Many other troops are scheduled for rotation beginning this month. The goal of the rotation is to leave about 115,000 U.S. troops in the country by summer.
“We’re taking advantage of that increase, and we will likely be managing the pace of the redeployments to allow those seasoned troops with experience and relationships with the local populations to see the current situation through,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Gen. Myers said he did not believe the stepped up battles in central and southern Iraq were part of nationwide counterattack by remaining Saddam loyalists.
“I think it’s also important to remember what this is not,” Gen. Myers said. “And it’s certainly not a popular uprising or a movement supported by the majority of Iraqis. It is not that at all.”
The northern fighters appear to be Sunni Muslim fighters while the southern fighters are part of a group of between 1,000 and 6,000 militia loyal to Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
However, U.S. military commanders are confident they will quell the violence, Mr. Rumsfeld said.
In Fallujah, U.S. forces have cordoned off the city and are systematically searching for former regime fighters, he said.
Nine persons were detained in Fallujah yesterday and several were linked to the killing last week of four American security contractors, whose bodies were mutilated by a mob.