U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a raid on the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah Wednesday, killing at least six people in the second incident this week in which American troops were involved in fighting despite the official end of combat.
President Barack Obama declared the end of combat operations in Iraq on Sept. 1 when the number of American troops fell below 50,000. Although their primary focus is on training Iraqi security forces, the remaining U.S. soldiers still take part in operations against insurgents at the request of the government.
The 50,000 Americans are also permitted to defend themselves and their bases, and they still frequently come under attack by insurgent groups using mortars, rockets and roadside bombs.
Insurgents have also intensified their strikes on Iraqi security forces as they shoulder greater responsibilities with the withdrawal of U.S. forces and in far northern Iraq, a roadside bomb killed nine Iraqi soldiers.
The raid in Fallujah, a former bastion of the Sunni-led insurgency located 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, took place around 2 a.m. when Iraqi special forces and American troops cordoned off a neighborhood before raiding several houses, police and hospital officials said.
Maj. Rob Phillips of the U.S. military's public affairs said American soldiers were helping Iraqi security forces in hunting down a senior al-Qaida operative, suspected of ties to the group's highest leadership in Iraq and believed to have been behind at least two major car bomb attacks.
Phillips said militants opened fire at the Iraqi security forces when they and the U.S. soldiers were approaching a building in which the suspected al-Qaida operative was hiding.
"The Iraqi security forces returned fired and killed four suspected militants," he said. Three militants were injured and four were detained by Iraqi forces.
"Two local residents who emerged with weapons and were engaged by the Iraqi forces, were also killed," he added. He did not know if the U.S. forces opened fire at any time during the firefight or the exact role that the advisers played in the incident.
A senior Iraqi military intelligence official said Iraqi security forces were looking for Yassin Qassar, an al-Qaida operative and former officer in Saddam Hussein's army. The official did not say whether he was killed or apprehended in the operation.
Mohammed Jassim, an eyewitness to the raid, said the Iraqi troops told residents they were looking for an officer from Saddam's elite Republican Guard unit. "Minutes later, we heard shooting and then raiding forces broke into several houses," he said.
Fallujah police chief Brig. Gen. Mahmoud al-Essawi told the AP that local police did not participate in the raid.
Two people were killed in the neighboring house and five people were wounded, he added, noting that local police did not participate in the raid.
"The commanders of the joint unit told us that they were conducting the raid with government's approval and they do not need the support of the local police," al-Essawi said.
The city's Municipal Council criticized the raid and said local security forces were deliberately excluded from the operation.
A statement said seven people were killed in the raid, "including old men and children." Five people were injured, the statement also said, adding that the raiding force faced no resistance. Hospital officials confirmed the toll.
"The people of Fallujah denounce this terrorist operation ... motivated by the deep hatred of this city and its people," the statement said, reflecting deep mistrust the Sunni town and the western Anbar province in general harbor for the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
The incident in Fallujah comes on the heels of a battle in Diyala province during which American troops helped Iraqi security forces battle suspected al-Qaida militants for two days.
The American drones, attack aircraft, artillery fire and ground forces, including advisers, participated in what appeared to be the most extensive fighting since the U.S. ended combat operations in Iraq.
The Iraqi soldiers killed near Mosul Wednesday were on a bus leaving their base in Tal Afar, 260 miles (420 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad for vacation when the bomb exploded. Another five soldiers were injured in the attack.
In the southern city of Basra, a roadside bomb detonated near an American military vehicle, police in Iraq's second largest city said. The U.S. military said no Americans were hurt in the incident.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Barbara Surk and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.