It appears that Iraqis in Anbar are finally fighting Al Qaeda in masses. Is this a turning point in the war? I hope so.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi security forces killed dozens of al Qaeda militants who attacked a village in western Anbar province on Wednesday, during fierce clashes that lasted much of the day, police officials said on Thursday.
Sunni tribal leaders are involved in an escalating power struggle with Sunni al Qaeda for control of Anbar, a vast desert province that is the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq.
Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Karim Khalaf said foreign Arabs and Afghanis were among some 80 militants killed and 50 captured in the clashes in Amiriyat al Falluja, a village where local tribes had opposed al Qaeda.
A police official in the area, Ahmed al-Falluji, put the number of militants killed at 70, with three police killed.
There was no immediate verification of the number of casualties from medical sources.
A U.S. military spokesman in the nearby city of Falluja, Major Jeff Pool, said U.S. forces were not involved in the battle but had received reports from Iraqi police that it lasted most of Wednesday. He could not confirm the number killed.
Another police source in Falluja said dozens were killed.
"Because it was so many killed we can't give an exact number for the death toll," the police source told Reuters.
Witnesses said dozens of al Qaeda members attacked the village, prompting residents to flee and seek help from Iraqi security forces, who sent in police and soldiers.
The escalating power struggle within the Sunni community in Anbar comes as U.S. and Iraqi troops concentrate efforts in Baghdad to stem violence between Shi'ites and Sunnis that is pushing the country to civil war.
It also occurs ahead of a planned reinforcement in Anbar by 4,000 U.S. troops, who could find themselves in the middle of the deadly rivalry. The U.S. military has encouraged an alliance of Sunni tribesmen against al Qaeda in the province, the deadliest place for American troops in Iraq.
A truck bomb last Saturday near a Sunni mosque in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, killed 52 people. That blast occurred a day after the mosque's imam made a speech criticizing al Qaeda.
The U.S. military says it cannot defeat al Qaeda in Anbar without the help of the traditionally minded tribal leaders, who oppose the militant group's plan to impose an Islamic caliphate.
Tribesmen and al Qaeda militants have fought recent battles in towns and villages along the length of the Euphrates valley from Falluja, west of Baghdad, to the Syrian border.
In other violence in the region, a car bomb targeting a convoy of cars carrying guests celebrating the wedding of a policemen killed five people and wounded 10 in Falluja on Thursday, a separate police source said.
The number of Iraqi civilian deaths in February was the lowest for four months, figures from Iraq's interior, defense and health ministries showed. A new security offensive in Baghdad was launched midway through the month.
But at 1,645 civilian deaths, the figures provided by ministry officials are still far above the 545 civilian deaths recorded a year ago during February 2006.