U.S. troops battled insurgents in fierce fighting that killed at least 12 people in the volatile Sunni city of Ramadi, the military said Thursday. Iraqi authorities said the dead included women and children.
The six-hour firefight began after the U.S. troops were attacked by insurgents with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades Wednesday evening in eastern Ramadi, said Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Shawn Mercer.
The fighting ended after "precision guided munitions" damaged a number of buildings being used by the insurgents, he said. Twelve insurgents were killed and three were wounded, he said, adding that there were no civilian casualties.
However, Dr. Hafidh Ibrahim of the Ramadi Hospital said 26 people, including four women and children, were killed when three houses were damaged in the fighting.
Photographs made available to The Associated Press showed the bodies of two small boys wrapped in one blanket, one with a bloody face, the other ashen and with mud on his mouth, his hands crossed on his chest. Other photos showed four or five bodies covered by blankets, and several men pulling at a pile of rubble and concrete bricks outside, apparently the wreckage of one of the destroyed houses.
Ramadi, the provincial capital of the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar, has seen some of the bloodiest street battles of the war.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, vowed to fight back after so-called "dirty" chemical attacks signaled a change in insurgent tactics.
Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the chief U.S. military spokesman, said a raid on five buildings near Fallujah uncovered three vehicle bombs that were being assembled with about 65 propane tanks and "all kinds of ordinary chemicals." He added that he believed the insurgents were going to try to mix the chemicals with explosives.
"What we are seeing is a change in the tactics, but their strategy has not changed. And that's to create high-profile attacks to instill fear and division amongst the Iraqi people," he told CNN. "It's a real crude attempt to raise the terror level by taking and mixing ordinary chemicals with explosive devices, trying to instill that fear within the Iraqi people."
But he suggested the strategy was backfiring by turning public opinion against the insurgents, saying the number of tips provided by Iraqis had doubled in the last six months.
Thursday's raid came a day after insurgents blew up a truck carrying chlorine gas canisters, killing five people and sending more than 55 to hospitals gasping for breath and rubbing stinging eyes.
Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman, said the investigation into the attack was still under way.
"But what is obvious to us that the terrorists are adopting new tactics to cause panic and as many casualties as they can among civilians. But our plans also are always changeable and flexible to face the enemies' new tactics."
On Tuesday, a bomb planted on a chlorine tanker left more than 150 villagers stricken north of the capital. More than 60 were still under medical care on Wednesday.
Chlorine causes respiratory trouble and skin irritation in low levels and possible death with heavy exposure.
The No. 2 American commander in Iraq, meanwhile, said the U.S. military has captured at least two suspects in the recent series of helicopter downings.
Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno also said the military has noted similarities in some of the eight helicopter incidents in the past month in which aircraft were either shot down or landed under fire. A few of them might have been ambushed, he said.
Odierno declined to detail any other similiarities in tactics and techniques used, but said officials are studying them closely to try to better protect the aircraft and capture militants from the cells involved, which he said he believes are "al-Qaida-associated cells."
Odierno said he doesn't think the downings -- and two incidents of chlorine bombs this week -- signal a more capable insurgency.
"What they're trying to do is ... adapt in such ways where they can continue to create instability," he told Pentagon reporters in a video conference from Baghdad.
Separately, four Iraqi soldiers have been accused of raping a 50-year-old Sunni woman and the attempted rape of her two daughters in the second allegation of sexual assault leveled against Iraqi forces this week, an official said.
Brig. Gen. Nijm Abdullah said the attack allegedly occurred about 10 days ago in the northern city of Tal Afar during a search for weapons and insurgents.
A lieutenant and three enlisted men denied the charge but later confessed after they were confronted by the woman, a Turkoman. Abdullah said a fifth soldier suspected something was wrong, burst into the house and forced the others at gunpoint to stop the assault.
"They have been referred to the judicial authorities so they can receive their just punishment," said Abdullah, who effectively serves as mayor of the city.
A tribal leader from Tal Afar, Sheik Mohammed Khalil Hanash of the Hawyat clan, said the alleged attack took place on Feb. 8. He said the woman told him that the lieutenant's only role was filming the alleged attack with a cell phone video camera.
A second rape allegation within a single week is likely to undermine further the reputation of Iraq's security services, which the U.S. hopes can take over from coalition troops so the Americans and their allies can go home.
Taking a step in that direction, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday that Britain will withdraw around 1,600 troops in the coming months and hopes to make other cuts to its 7,100-strong contingent by late summer.
The Iraqi government welcomed the decision, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki saying it was "a decision in harmony with the government's intention to assume security responsibilities in the province," referring to Basra, a predominantly Shiite area 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.
A spokesman for President Jalal Talabani also said the move would act as a "catalyst for Iraqi forces to assume security responsibilities."
"His excellency considers it as a positive step and thanks British forces for their role in liberating Iraq from dictatorship and maintaining stability in Iraq," Talabani's spokesman Hiwa Othman said.
Thunderous explosions reverberated through Baghdad earlier Thursday as the security crackdown in the capital entered its second week. Violence has continued to hit the city of 6 million people, although not at the high levels of earlier this year.
A mortar attack struck the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Adil in western Baghdad, wounding at least four people, including a child, police said.
By Sinan Salaheddin, Associated Press Writer
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)