May 9, 2005
BAGHDAD, Iraq - American troops backed by helicopters and war planes have launched a major offensive against insurgents in a remote desert area near the Syrian border, and about 75 militants were killed in the first 24 hours, the U.S. military said.
Marines, sailors and soldiers from Regimental Combat Team 2, 2nd Marine Division, were conducting the offensive in an area north of the Euphrates River, in the al-Jazirah Desert, a known smuggling route and sanctuary for foreign insurgents, the military said.
The brief statement did not specify when the operation began, how many troops were involved, or whether there had been any American casualties.
The Chicago Tribune reported that more than 1,000 U.S. troops supported by fighter jets and helicopter gunships on Sunday raided villages in and around Obeidi, about 185 miles west of Baghdad, in an operation expected to last several days.
The report, by a journalist embedded with the U.S. forces, said the offensive "was seeking to uproot a persistent insurgency in an area that American intelligence indicated has become a haven for foreign fighters flowing in from Syria."
Some U.S. forces were north of the Euphrates, but most were stuck south of the waterway as engineers tried to build a pontoon bridge there Sunday, the Tribune said.
The report quoted some Marines as saying residents of one riverside town had turned off all their lights at night, apparently to warn neighboring towns of the approaching U.S. troops.
U.S. and Iraqi forces appear to have stepped up raids on suspected insurgent hideouts in recent weeks, including some near the Syrian border, where U.S. officials say foreign militants are entering the country to attack coalition forces.
On Sunday, the U.S. military said coalition forces killed six insurgents and detained 54 suspects in raids targeting the country's most feared terror group, al-Qaida in Iraq, in Qaim, a Syrian border town about 200 miles west of Baghdad.
The crackdown came amid a torrent of insurgent violence, which has killed more than 310 people since April 28, when a new Iraqi government was announced with seven positions left undecided. At least nine American servicemen were killed in weekend attacks.
The interim National Assembly on Sunday approved six more Cabinet members, including four more Sunni Arabs. But the Sunni man selected as human rights minister turned down the job on the grounds of tokenism, tarnishing the Shiite premier's bid to include the disaffected minority believed to be driving Iraq's deadly insurgency.
The five new members were sworn in Monday. The rest of Cabinet also repeated the oath of office after new language was added at the request of Barham Salih, the Kurdish planning and development cooperation minister.
The ministers pledged their allegiance to a "federal, democratic" Iraq, which Salih said brought the wording of the oath in line with language in Iraq's transitional law.
Iraq's two main Kurdish factions, which hold 75 seats in the 270-member National Assembly, are pressing for a federal government that would give strong autonomy to the Kurdish north.
When complete, the new government is expected to include 17 Shiite ministers, eight Kurds, six Sunnis and a Christian. Three deputy premiers have been named - one each for the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, with the fourth held open for a woman.
Al-Jaafari pledged Sunday to take "all necessary measures" to restore security in Iraq and said the government could impose martial law, if necessary, to fight the insurgents.
Violence continued Monday with at least three Iraqis killed in a suicide car bombing at police checkpoint at a busy Baghdad intersection, said police Maj. Mousa Abdul Karim. The dead included two policemen and a civilian. Six other policemen and three civilians were wounded, he said.
The U.S. military said it had conducted several raids Sunday in and around Baghdad, detaining 13 suspected insurgents, some armed with rocket-propelled grenades.
Two of the suspects were captured in a raid aimed at the leader of a terror cell believed to have plotted an April 20 assassination attempt against former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, the military said.
Allawi was unharmed, but at least one policeman was killed and two wounded when a suicide car bomb exploded near a police checkpoint as his convoy drove him home.
On Sunday, the Iraqi government said its security forces had captured an associate of the country's most-wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was identified as Ammar Adnan Mohammed Hamza al-Zubaydi, also known as Abul Abbas. Al-Zubaydi is accused of planning an April 2 assault by dozens of insurgents who blew up car bombs and fired RPGs outside Abu Ghraib prison, the Iraqi statement said.
The American casualties included a U.S. soldier who was killed by gunfire Sunday in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, the military said Monday.
The worst of the weekend fighting occurred in Haditha, when insurgents occupied a civilian hospital and used gunfire, RPGs, a suicide car bomb and a roadside bomb to kill three U.S. Marines and a sailor, the military said.
On Monday, the U.S. military accused insurgents of using patients as human shields during the four-hour battle in Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, even after one of their bombs set fire to the hospital.
An unspecified number of militants were killed in the fighting, the military said.
At least 1,600 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.