Joining forces

JOINING FORCES: A member, left, of one of Iraq's Concerned Local Citizen (CLC) groups, U.S. sanctioned neighbourhood watch groups, walks past an American soldier with the 101st Airborne Division during a joint operation. (AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. and Iraqi army units supported a citizen policing group in a daylong battle against an Al Qaeda in Iraq assault on a town south of the capital, the U.S. military said Tuesday.

Thirty to 45 militants on foot and in vehicles mounted with machine guns stormed two checkpoints Monday manned by the citizens group, which was recently formed to protect Adwaniya, about 12 miles south of Baghdad.

The untested residents, fighting with personal weapons and minimal combat gear, held their positions until help arrived, first from the Iraqi army and then U.S. ground and aerial forces.

Five of the local fighters and 15 insurgents were killed, the military said. No U.S. or Iraqi troops were killed or seriously injured.

The U.S. deployed helicopters and F-16 fighters, which dropped two 500-pound bombs, a military statement said.

The engagement involved some of the most intense fighting yet encountered by a so-called concerned local citizens group, or CLC, under a fast-growing program in which armed residents provide security against insurgents and militants for their towns, villages and neighborhoods. For the U.S., it was a promising test of how well the untrained force might work in concert with military units.

"The good news was they stayed in position," said U.S. Army Col. Terry Ferrell, commander of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. "They fought and were not denied the ability to hold that piece of terrain."

Coordination of the three forces, as well as a second citizens group that joined the battle, was "very remarkable," he said.

The self-armed citizens groups are paid modest salaries and supervised by U.S. forces. The initiative, which started last year with Sunni Muslim tribal leaders in Anbar province who turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq, now involves about 70,000 people, extending the reach of U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad and its environs.

"I think all the elements that had a part in today's battle were impressed with the concerned citizens," said 1st Lt. Robert Hamilton, a U.S. platoon leader involved in the fighting. "For the number of factors against them, they handled themselves well."

Also Tuesday, the U.S. military said it would send 3,000 soldiers home from Diyala province in January as it continues to draw down the nearly 30,000 troops deployed in President Bush's "surge" strategy this year, Reuters news agency reported.

No unit will replace the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, in the mixed Sunni-Shiite region where troops saw heavy fighting with insurgents this year. Instead, the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, from Ft. Lewis, Wash., will expand its operations area to cover all of Diyala province. The brigade currently operates in western Diyala province and northern Baghdad province.

The military early today announced the deaths of three soldiers in northern Iraq. Two were killed Tuesday by an explosion in Diyala province, and the third was shot near Mosul. The deaths brought to 3,863 the number of American fatalities since the beginning of the war in March 2003, according to icasualties.org.

A roadside bomb detonated this morning outside a Green Zone entrance, and an Interior Ministry source said two civilians were killed and three injured. Police said several U.S. Stryker vehicles near the blast left with no apparent damage.

At Camp Victory in Baghdad, lawyers for a U.S. sniper leveled allegations at a general involved in the case. Their statement Tuesday came at the end of a preliminary hearing, known as an Article 32, that determines whether to go to court-martial.

James Culp and Dan Conway, attorneys for Sgt. Evan Vela, alleged that U.S. Army Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Multi-National Central Division south of Baghdad, had obstructed their client's quest for justice. Lynch was not immediately available for comment.

Vela is charged with murder in the May 11 shooting of an Iraqi. He was the last of three troops in his sniper section accused of killing the Iraqi unlawfully. The other two, Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley and Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., were acquitted of murder charges but found guilty of lesser charges.

Vela's attorneys alleged that Lynch, the commanding officer responsible for Babil, Najaf, Karbala and Wasit provinces, had blocked their request for an Article 32 hearing this summer after Vela waived his right to the hearing on the advice of his original court-appointed counsel. Lynch's ruling was later overturned, Culp said.

Lynch refused to grant Hensley and Sandoval immunity for Vela's hearing, Culp said.

Elsewhere in Iraq, witnesses and officials of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a Turkish Kurd rebel group, said Tuesday that Turkish helicopters had bombed three abandoned Kurdish villages in northern Iraq near the border the previous night, but others disputed their account.

Jamal Abdullah, a spokesman for Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, said the incident, which he said involved only flares, had not resulted in casualties or damage.

In Hashimiya, eight miles west of Baqubah, four Iraqi soldiers were killed and seven injured when a roadside bomb went off, police said.

The bodies of four unidentified men were found Tuesday in Baghdad, officials said.

Two people in a car were killed in an explosion Monday night in Farisiya, 45 miles north of Hillah, officials said.

doug.smith@latimes.com

Times staff writers Ned Parker, Wail Alhafith and Saif Hameed in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad, Baqubah, Kirkuk and Hillah contributed to this report.