Michael R. Gordon / The New York Times – 2007-06-25 23:04:57
BAQUBA, Ira ( June 25, 2007) — One week after American forces mounted their assault on insurgent strongholds in western Baquba, at least half of the estimated 300 to 500 fighters who were there have escaped or are still at large, the colonel who is leading the attack said Monday.
Col. Steve Townsend told a group of journalists that his soldiers had wrested control over most of the area from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, deprived the insurgent group of its nominal capital and made headway in protecting the residents from reprisals by militants.
But he acknowledged that his forces had not killed or captured as many of the insurgents as he had hoped.
“We are on our way to securing the population of Baquba, which is what we came here to do,” said the colonel, who commands the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the Second Infantry Division. “I am pretty satisfied, with the exception of my own goal to kill and capture as many as possible so we don’t have to fight them somewhere else.”
The American forces had sought to trap the insurgents in the city by establishing a cordon around the western section of Baquba in the early hours of the operation. Senior military commanders said last week that the top leaders had left the city well before they tried to seal it off, but that they hoped to kill or apprehend many of the remaining fighters. But the account from Colonel Townsend indicates that many of those fighters also eluded capture, by posing as ordinary citizens or leaving the city.
Colonel Townsend said reports from the field showed that there were more than 100 insurgent casualties; his conservative count was that 49 of them had been killed. More than 60 suspected insurgents have also been captured, he added.
“When I came here I thought there were 300 to 500 fighters in there because that is what the intelligence told me,” he said. “Does that mean that half or more eluded us? I guess it does.”
During the week of fighting, the insurgents made liberal use of their weapon of choice: concealed or buried bombs. They engaged in firefights and had roving teams armed with rocket-propelled grenades.
But the insurgents have yet to make a final stand. So far, they have resorted to a familiar tactic: tangling with the United States troops only to leave or melt into the population when faced with overwhelming American firepower.
Colonel Townsend said that the fight was not drawing to a close and that he expected the insurgents to carry out fresh attacks. “The enemy has done what I would do in his shoes,” he said. “He has largely tried to melt away after putting up initial resistance. So, yes, I expect the enemy will come back.”
In a sense, senior American military commanders in Baghdad turned out to be their own worst enemy when it came to catching the insurgents by surprise. They talked publicly about the need to mount military operations in Diyala Province, where Baquba is located.
“The coalition was very open, very public about our intentions to come to Baquba as part of the surge,” Colonel Townsend said.
Beyond that, some insurgents appeared to have been tipped off, he said. “Then we have reason to believe that some left immediately prior to the operation,” he said. “How they got that word I don’t know.”
The ability of many of the insurgents to elude capture was reflected in the relatively small number of arms that the Americans seized. Still, Colonel Townsend said there were some important military gains.
American forces, he said, found a Qaeda courthouse where the insurgents administered their strict version of Islamic justice. They also found, he said, two bags of documents, including a list of fighters who carried out suicide attacks and a roster of insurgents. Two captured insurgents may have ties to senior Qaeda leaders, he added.
The soldiers also neutralized 48 buried and concealed bombs, six car bombs, 45 water heating tanks full of explosives and they identified and destroyed 21 house bombs.
So far, one American has died and 18 were wounded. American commanders say there have been 11 civilians wounded due to an errant strike with a satellite guided bomb, a figure that appears low given eyewitness accounts.
The longer-term effect of the assault remains to be seen, but Colonel Townsend described an operation that disrupted the insurgents without delivering a knockout blow.
“They will go somewhere else and they will start building a new network,” he said. “I think they are more vulnerable when they are on the move.”
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