TELEGRAPH – Deep in the desolate, bone-dry wasteland of western Iraq, strong evidence has emerged that organised groups of foreign Islamic volunteers are involved in the increasingly widespread armed resistance to American forces.
More than 70 Iraqi and Arab fighters were killed on Thursday in a crushing assault by US airborne and special forces on their camp next to a creek near Rawa, a town on the Euphrates river about 50 miles from Syria.
Packets of Algerian tobacco, paperwork from Egypt and Yemen, and Saudi religious tracts and shopping tags were found among the scorched detritus of the camp yesterday by The Telegraph, the first British newspaper to reach the remote location.
Local people who buried the bodies within 24 hours, in keeping with Muslim teaching, recognised just one man. They believe that the rest of the heavily armed group, who arrived by lorry last weekend, were foreigners and Iraqis from other parts of the country.
The raid, on what US Central Command called a “terrorist training camp”, provides the first significant indication that militants from other Arab countries who came to Iraq before the US-led invasion are still operating in the tribal lands west of Baghdad. In recent weeks American forces have been repeatedly ambushed in this region, known as the “Sunni Triangle”.
The attack began with an aerial pounding shortly after midnight and is thought to have followed a tip-off about the group’s whereabouts from an informant within the fighters’ ranks or from Rawa. There were no survivors and locals said that some of the dead had been shot in the head at close range.
Although the nationalities of the men are not known, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Algeria provided most of the volunteers for Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.
Scattered on the ground were approximately 20 pairs of crumpled black trousers and jackets – the uniform of the fanatical Fedayeen Saddam (Saddam’s Martyrs). Military rucksacks and kitbags lay alongside, as well as civilian clothes and training shoes. The remains of a medical kit of bandaging, syringes, painkillers and sutures suggested the fighters had been well-equipped.
Along a gully, the remnants of the group’s arms cache stretched for hundreds of yards. About 30 hand-held surface-to-air missile launchers, countless missiles, mortar rounds and flares, and the remnants of rocket-propelled grenades, were strewn across the ground. The scorched face of the rock escarpment where the fighters had pitched their tents bore testimony to the ferocity of the attack.
They probably thought they had found an ideal hiding place next to the bullrushes of a stream in otherwise unforgiving terrain; instead it became a shooting gallery from which there was no escape.
With temperatures approaching 120F, the stench of rotting bodies was escaping from the newly dug graves. The cover of a Koran, a white dish-dash (robe) and an iqal (the coil of a headdress) were laid across one; elsewhere shards of wood marked where body parts had been covered.
Locals from Rawa said that they had found no identity cards or passports, but it was unclear whether they had been destroyed in the attack or removed by US troops.
The raid was led by air assault units from the 101st Airborne Division, soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division and special forces. After the site was pounded from the air, troops landed by helicopter to finish off the resistance. One US soldier was injured in the ferocious firefight.
The Americans suffered one military setback when an Apache helicopter was shot down about a mile from the battleground, apparently by a small, separate band of fighters. The two-man crew was rescued unhurt by US special forces, who left six fighters dead at the site before the downed helicopter was removed by an army crane and truck.
The operation represented a new stage in the US occupation of Iraq. Troops were sent in for the first time since the war to pummel enemy fighters with the sort of force deployed in the advance on Baghdad.