BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi soldiers backed by U.S. helicopters killed several suspected insurgents and seized 131 more in a dawn raid Saturday, capturing tons of explosives earmarked for attacks on the holy city of Kerbala, officials said.
“It was a surprise operation based on intensive surveillance by military intelligence,” Defense Minister Hazim al-Shaalan told Reuters. “It was very successful.”
Earlier this week Iraqi police commandos said they killed 85 militants in a raid on a suspected insurgent training camp near Baghdad, hailing it as a breakthrough against the insurgency.
Shaalan said several suspected militants were killed in the latest operation, which began late Friday and culminated in the dawn raid just outside Kerbala, about 100 km (60 miles) southwest of Baghdad.
The vast majority of the 131 captured were Iraqis, although officials said many faked Iraqi identification papers were also found. It was not clear how many people were killed.
“We carried out this operation so that visitors to Kerbala can go there in peace,” Shaalan said.
Kerbala, an important Shi’ite Muslim holy city, has been targeted by militants several times in the past. Next week it will draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from throughout the region for Arbain, a major mourning ceremony.
Another defense ministry official said many of those detained were from Ansar al-Sunna, a militant group based in northern Iraq, near the border with Iran, that has carried out several high-profile attacks over the past 18 months.
“This group was intending to attack Kerbala,” he said.
Seized along with the suspects were three tons of TNT explosive, at least three ready-made car bombs, hundreds of rocket-propelled grenades, several Katyusha rockets, more than 250,000 rounds of ammunition and other equipment.
In terms of the number of people detained and the amount of weaponry seized, it marks one of the most successful Iraqi-run operations in the past two years.
Iraqi officials say their intelligence network is improving, while Iraqi security forces are also growing stronger, giving them fresh impetus in the battle against the two-year-old insurgency.