BAGHDAD, March 24 -- New details about an intense battle between insurgents and Iraqi police commandos supported by U.S. forces cast doubt Thursday on Iraqi government claims that 85 rebels were killed at what was described as a clandestine training camp.
Accounts of the fighting continued to indicate that a major battle involving dozens of insurgents occurred Tuesday on the eastern shore of Tharthar Lake, which is about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad. However, two U.S. military officials said Thursday that no bodies were found by American troops who arrived at the scene after the fighting. A spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said he presumed the announced death toll was accurate, but he played down the scope of the fighting.
"I wouldn't call it a major incident," said the spokesman, Sabah Kadhim. Its significance, he said, was that it was "the first major operation" to be conceived and executed by the nascent Iraqi security forces with U.S. soldiers in a supporting role.
The stated death toll ranked the operation as the most lethal since November, when U.S. forces supported by Iraqi troops pushed into the western city of Fallujah, killing some 1,000 suspected insurgents. This time, however, Iraqis took the lead, with only a squad from a U.S. liaison unit -- the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment of the 42nd Infantry Division -- involved in the initial assault.
The reported rout appeared to bolster recent claims by U.S. commanders that Iraq's beleaguered security forces are improving. U.S. officials have said repeatedly that American troops will withdraw from Iraq only after the Iraqis are deemed able to defend the country.
Maj. Richard L. Goldenberg, spokesman for the 42nd Infantry Division, said, "I can't confirm the estimate" given by Iraq about the number of insurgents killed in the fight. He said that by the time additional U.S. ground forces arrived, "the insurgent forces who had fled . . . were able to recover their casualties and take them with them."
Noting that an Islamic militant group had said 11 insurgents were killed, Goldenberg said: "I would tell you that somewhere between 11 and 80 lies an accurate number."
Goldenberg said crewmen who provided support in two Apache attack helicopters and an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter later estimated that 80 to 100 insurgents participated in the fighting. Asked how 85 bodies could have been carried away, Goldenberg referred the question to the Interior Ministry.
Goldenberg said uncertainty surrounding the casualty figures should not take away from the performance of the Iraqi commandos. "We could spend years going back and forth on body counts," he said. "The important thing is the effect this has on the organized insurgency."
U.S. military officers say they believe insurgents, including foreign fighters, were using the area as a temporary camp because it was equipped with tents, bomb-making manuals, foreign identification cards, ammunition and guns. One senior U.S. officer said that the camp's location near the restive cities of Fallujah, Samarra and Ramadi might indicate that the insurgents can no longer take refuge in major urban areas and have been forced into more remote locations.
The news service Agence France-Presse reported that one of its correspondents visited the site Wednesday and found that 30 to 40 insurgents were still there. A man who identified himself as "Amer" and claimed membership in the militant Secret Islamic Army of Iraq said 11 insurgents were killed in the raid.
Iraqi security forces have been engaged in several fierce battles this week. On Thursday in the city of Rabia near the Syrian border, Iraqi police mistook Iraqi soldiers dressed as civilians for insurgents and opened fire. In the ensuing gun battle, three soldiers and two police officers were killed, according to Ahmed Mohammed Khalaf Jabori, police chief for the nearby city of Mosul.
In Kirkuk on Tuesday, Iraqi soldiers fended off an attack by an unknown number of insurgents, killing three and wounding one, according to an army spokesman, Lt. Col. Khalil Ismael Zawbaei.
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad and special correspondents Marwan Ibrahim in Kirkuk and Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.