In what is being described as the heaviest blow to the insurgency in months, a 240-strong Iraqi commando unit engaged in heavy fighting before seizing the camp, 160km north-west of Baghdad.

Iraqi special forces attacked the training camp, at Lake Tharthar, on the border between the troubled mainly Sunni provinces of Anbar and Salaheddin.

The remote site contained ramshackle huts and tents, along with boats used by insurgents to cross the lake.

After encountering heavy fire from an estimated 100 insurgents, the Iraq forces called in US ground and air reinforcements.

“The commandos killed 35 and US air raids killed 50. But no one was captured and many escaped by boat,” General Adnan Thabet, a senior ministry security advisor told the AFP news agency by phone from Samarra.

“During the fight, 30 boats left.”

The camp, frequented by members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s branch of al-Qaeda, was built after the US offensive to retake the rebel enclave of Fallujah in November, General Thabet said.

“This was a serious military camp with a living section and guard posts,” said a commando officer, named Jalil, who took part in the operation, the largest since the January 30 elections.

Iraqi officials said that at least seven Iraqi commandos died, alongside insurgents from a number of countries.

The Iraqi officials said the insurgents included at least 10 foreign recruits.

They had found passports from Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Syria at the camp. One casualty was said to be Egyptian.

Machine guns, rockets, arms and training manuals, including instructions on how to make roadside bombs, were also reportedly discovered.

However the scale of raid has been thrown into question by an AFP correspondent who visited the site.

The correspondent, who went with other journalists to the camp at Lake Tharthar, 200km north of Baghdad, said he saw 30 to 40 fighters there.

The remains of three burnt vehicles were seen on a dusty road leading to the camp in the village of Ain al-Hilwa.

A few mud huts were partly destroyed and a some big craters gouged the ground.

One of the fighters, who called himself Mohammed Amer and claimed to belong to the Secret Islamic Army, said they had never left the base.

He claimed only 11 of his comrades were killed in air strikes on the site.

He said no one was captured and others had fled by boat.

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