FALLUJAH, Iraq — U.S. and Iraqi forces raided a neighborhood in the longtime Sunni Muslim insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on Wednesday, U.S. military officials said, killing at least six people in the deadliest joint operation since President Barack Obama announced the end of the American combat mission in Iraq two weeks ago.
The incident underscored that American forces remain engaged in offensive operations despite Obama's declaration that the fewer than 50,000 remaining U.S. troops would focus on advising and training the Iraqi military and police.
The U.S. military hasn't said what its threshold is now for engaging in combat. So far, it appears that the American military is allowed to engage when it's under attack or supporting an Iraqi effort.
A U.S. military spokesman said the predawn raid targeted a senior leader of the Sunni insurgent group al Qaida in Iraq who was alleged to be responsible for several high-profile attacks. It wasn't immediately clear whether he was among those killed.
Arriving in the Jubail section of Fallujah, about 40 miles west of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi forces came under fire and Iraqi soldiers fired back, killing four people and wounding three, said the spokesman, Maj. Rob Phillips. Two other individuals began shooting at the soldiers and also were killed.
Pentagon officials don't think that U.S troops fired any shots during the raid. Residents reported seeing U.S. military helicopters supporting the operation.
Iraqi police officials offered a slightly different account, saying seven people were killed and that the raid began when the U.S.-Iraqi team set off explosives in the neighborhood around 1:30 a.m. Witnesses said that soldiers fatally shot several members of two families — including a preteen boy — as well as Yassin Qassar, a former lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein.
A fourth-grader, Ahmed Humadi, said that soldiers had shot and killed his father and three of his brothers, one of them a fifth-grader, at their home.
They entered and started yelling and cursing us and all the women," Ahmed said. "I begged them to let me find my 5-year-old brother ... and they let me. I found him hiding behind the bed, trembling and afraid.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki announced an investigation into the incident. Fallujah, the largest city in western Anbar province, was once a hotbed of Sunni insurgent groups and saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq war.
The incident renewed fears about the capability of the Iraqi forces, which military officials long have fretted privately aren't ready to secure their country from al Qaida in Iraq, which is trying to re-emerge. Indeed, some military officials said that incidents such as Wednesday's had them wondering whether the United States was leaving the country too fast, given the Iraqis' capability.
Many soldiers who've trained Iraqis said they thought that their counterparts would revert to their own tactics — not the ones American forces trained them in v once foreign eyes were gone.
As the U.S. military has drawn down its forces in recent months, militants have tried to step up attacks.
Family members of Ahmed's said Wednesday that Iraqi soldiers handcuffed them and held them for several hours after the raid and that other relatives remained in military custody.
A senior police official in Fallujah, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists, said Iraqi forces had sent advance word that a raid was coming but didn't offer details.
U.S. and Iraqi forces seized four of the dead bodies, witnesses said.
Also on Wednesday, nine off-duty Iraqi soldiers were killed and five were wounded when a roadside bomb detonated outside the northern city of Mosul, according to Iraqi police officials.
(Naji is a McClatchy special correspondent. Bengali reported from Baghdad. Special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy in Baghdad and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
Follow Middle East news at McClatchy's blog,Middle East Diary.