RAMADI - Five senior Iraqi officers, including a major general, and 10 soldiers were killed Saturday in a raid on an Al-Qaeda hideout in the west of the country, military sources said. Violence elsewhere killed five policemen, including the head of a precinct in Al-Sharqat district northwest of Baghdad, and wounded five others, police and medics said.
Major General Mohammed al-Karoui, who headed the army's 7th Division, was leading an assault on a "hideout of the Al-Qaeda" network in Sunni-majority Anbar province near the Syrian border.
He was killed along with four other senior army officers and 10 soldiers when they stormed booby-trapped buildings, the military sources said, "The bombs exploded when the troops entered the buildings," near Rutba, 380 kilometres (235 miles) west of Baghdad, they said.
The defence ministry said the operation was launched after reports that Al-Qaeda militants had set up 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.
It said reconnaissance flights pinpointed targets which the air force then bombed, ahead of the ground assault.
Karoui's unit was tracking fleeing suspects when a bomb exploded killing the major general, the other officers and the soldiers, the statement added.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who also heads the armed forces, issued a statement of condolences.
"Those heroes were carrying out the most noble battles against the enemies of God and humanity who have killed Iraqis," Maliki said in the statement.
"They have been fighting day and night... to protect Iraq and its people."
'Eradicate malevolent gangs'
Maliki also urged the armed forces "to strike with an iron fist these malevolent gangs and track them down wherever they may be and eradicate them from Iraq".
Two years after the US pullout, security forces have been struggling to curb violence that has surged this year to levels unseen since 2008, when Iraq was just emerging from a brutal sectarian conflict.
In November, Maliki travelled to Washington where he discussed with President Barack Obama how to "push back" Al-Qaeda which is blamed for the surge of violence, the US leader said at the time.
Maliki took along a wish list of US military hardware Baghdad says it needs to rebuild its armed forces which were battered in the 2003 US-led invasion.
A joint statement at the time said both sides agreed on the need "for additional equipment for Iraqi forces to conduct ongoing operations in remote areas where terrorist camps are located".
In other violence Saturday, a bomb blast killed Al-Sharqat police chief Colonel Ahmad al-Battawi and five policemen as they were on patrol northwest of Baghdad, police and medics said.
Another four policemen were killed in attacks on checkpoints in Fallujah, west of the capital, security officials said.
The Western desert province of Anbar borders war-hit Syria and is a bastion of Al-Qaeda.
France and Turkey have also offered to help Iraq battle the growing violence, where more people were killed in the first eight days of this month than in all of December last year.
More than 6,600 people have been killed since the beginning of 2013, according to AFP figures based on security and medical sources.
Analysts say widespread discontent among Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community is a major factor fuelling the surge in unrest.
The 33-month war in Syria, which has bolstered extremist groups, has also played a role, they say.
Although the government has made some concessions aimed at placating Sunni Arabs, including freeing prisoners and raising the salaries of Sahwa fighters, underlying issues remain unaddressed.