U.S. and Iraqi forces raided a suspected guerrilla training camp and killed 85 fighters, the single biggest one-day death toll for militants in months and the latest in a series of blows to the insurgency, Iraqi officials said Wednesday.
"Among the dead are Arab and foreign fighters, including Sudanese, Algerians and Moroccans, as well as other nationalities," Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim told Reuters.
“An early assessment of the site indicates a facility for training anti-Iraqi forces,” said Major Richard Goldenberg of the U.S. 42nd Infantry Division, using the U.S. military’s term for insurgents. “Documentation at the facility indicates that some members of the AIF were foreign fighters.”
The U.S. military announced late Tuesday that its air and ground forces backed Iraqi commandos during a noontime raid on the suspected training camp near Lake Tharthar in central Iraq. Seven commandos died in fighting, the U.S. military said. It did not give a death toll for the militants.
Iraqi officials said Wednesday 85 insurgents died in the clash — the largest number killed in a single battle since the U.S. Marine-led November attack on the former militant stronghold of Fallujah left more than 1,000 dead.
Also Wednesday, a mortar shell or rocket struck an elementary school in western Baghdad, killing at least one child and injuring three others, according to a police official who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution by attackers.
Children fled the schoolhouse, abandoning backpacks and books on desks littered with glass shards. One teacher wept outside as parents rushed to the scene.
Hours later, a policeman trying to defuse a roadside bomb in Baghdad died and another officer was wounded when the device exploded, police Capt. Talib Thamir said.
Meantime, politicians helping shape a postelection government expected within days said negotiators are considering a Sunni Arab as defense minister in a move aimed at bringing them into the political process — and perhaps deflate the insurgency they lead.
Abbas Hassan Mousa al-Bayati, a top member of the United Iraqi Alliance, said negotiators from his Shiite-dominated bloc and a Kurdish coalition could tap a Sunni Arab to head the ministry of defense, which oversees the Iraqi army battling the insurgency.
“The Defense Ministry will go to a Sunni Arab because we do not want Arab Sunnis to feel that they are marginalized,” al-Bayati told The Associated Press. “They will be given one of the four major posts because we want them to feel that they are part of the political formula.”
Sunni Arabs, dominant under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, largely stayed away from the Jan. 30 balloting amid calls for them to boycott and threats against voters by the Sunni-led insurgency.
Political leaders have in the past announced plans on filling Cabinet positions, only to reverse themselves later.
Al-Bayati said his group and the Kurdish coalition, which together won 215 seats in the new 275-seat National Assembly, were expected to name a president Saturday, the next step toward forming a new government. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani is expected to fill the post.
Fuad Masoum, a member of the Kurdish negotiating team, said no definitive decisions on the 32-member Cabinet have been made. He declined to confirm that a Sunni Arab will be named defense minister but said that was one option under consideration.
Handing the post to a Sunni Arab could help undermine support for the insurgency, while assuaging Sunni fears that the Shiites will dominate all aspect’s of the country’s upcoming government.
The army chief of staff could be a Shiite, al-Bayati said.