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Violence in Iraq a problem for U.S.

BAGHDAD — For a few hours last week, a part of Fallujah was a flashback to the depths of the Iraq war, when insurgents ruled the city and its streets were shooting galleries.

During an afternoon raid, gunmen exchanged fire with American and Iraqi commandos. Panicked civilians ran for cover or grabbed weapons of their own. In the end, the death count included at least four suspected insurgents and seven civilians — perhaps more — during an attempt to catch an alleged key tactician for al-Qaida in Iraq.

The target got away.

The official reckoning of what happened Sept. 15 is still under wraps. Iraqi authorities have opened an investigation and the U.S. military declined to give details until the inquest is completed on the raid — some of the first major ground fighting for U.S. troops since President Obama declared an end to combat operations more than three weeks ago.

But accounts by Iraqi security officials and others to the Associated Press lay bare the rifts that still plague Iraqi society — including deep suspicion between Sunnis and Shiites and the resiliency of an insurgency that remains unbeaten and could yet draw American troops into more combat.

The raid also shows that U.S. forces can still be put on the front lines, and at high risk, to assist Iraqi commanders who are struggling with shortfalls in areas such as commando-style assaults and intelligence gathering.

"The Iraqi military is cognizant of its own limitations," said Michael Hanna, a military and political affairs analyst at the Century Foundation in New York. "So that while there is an eagerness to be in the lead, there is also a healthy dose of realism about their capacity."

On the military side, Fallujah represents the worries of an insurgent rebound. It was once a stronghold of Sunni militants — led by al-Qaida in Iraq — and the scene of intense block-by-block combat with U.S. troops in 2004 before local militias joined the fight and eventually uprooted the militant bases.

Fallujah also underscores the Sunni-Shiite discord that ripples through all levels in Iraq — and could chip away at Iraq's security networks. That could mean calls by Iraq for wider U.S. military support even as the Pentagon seeks to complete its pullout by the end of next year.

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