At least 18 soldiers, including a general, have been killed in a raid on a suspected al-Qaeda base in the restive Iraqi province of Anbar. Islamists are reported to have stepped up attacks in recent weeks.
Police said Maj. Gen Mohammed al-Karawi and at least 17 other soldiers were killed in a search operation looking for al Qaeda militants in the volatile Anbar province.
Al-Karawi was reported to have been leading an attack on a camp near the town of Rutba, some 380 kilometers (235 miles) west of Baghdad, military sources said.
The sources said that soldiers were attacked by suicide bombers during an assault on the camp, which was also booby-trapped with explosive devices. The exact sequence of events was initially unclear.
"All that we know so far is three suicide bombers wearing explosive vests came from nowhere and detonated themselves among the officers," a military officer told the Reuters news agency.
It was not ascertained whether al-Karawi had been killed in the assault itself, or by a roadside bomb in a subsequent chase as Islamist militants were said to have fled into the desert.
Security officials suggested the army may have been lured to the area purposely. Militant Islamists posted online that al-Karawi's death had been in revenge for the killings of more than 40 people in a raid by security forces in April on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija.
The defense ministry said the operation was launched after reports that al Qaeda militants had established camps in the area to train militants in bomb-making.
"Intelligence indicated that the terrorist al Qaeda network opened camps to train its terrorist elements to make bombs and explosive belts, and that more than 60 terrorists were present in the Wadi Huran region west of Anbar province," a statement said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, head of the armed forces, issued a statement of condolence. "Those heroes were carrying out the most noble battles against the enemies of God and humanity who have killed Iraqis," Maliki said.
The desert province of Anbar borders war-hit Syria on Iraq's eastern frontier and is a stronghold of al Qaeda.
Also on Saturday, a bomb blast killed Al-Sharqat police chief Colonel Ahmad al-Battawi and five policemen while they were on patrol northwest of Baghdad. Another four policemen were killed in attacks on checkpoints in Fallujah.
Analysts say discontent among Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community is a key factor fuelling the surge in unrest. According to figures compiled from security and medical sources by the news agency AFP, more than 6,600 people have been killed since the beginning of 2013.
rc/jr (AFP, dpa, Reuters)