U.S. offensive appears to widen in western Iraq; 8 insurgents killed in door-to-door fighting
QAIM, Iraq (AP) – Hundreds of U.S. troops combed through a village near the Syrian border Sunday, breaking into houses and fighting sporadic gun battles with gunmen on the second day of a new offensive against al-Qaida insurgents. At least eight militants were killed, the military said.Many residents fled Sadah village into Syria before the offensive began, witnesses said, and the 1,000 U.S. troops involved appeared to be widening the sweep into two nearby towns.In Karabila, troops with loudspeakers warned residents to stay inside their homes for their own safety Sunday, witnesses said. In Rumana, a town on the other side of the Euphrates River, helicopters fired on several houses, sending plumes of black smoke up into the air, the witnesses said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for their security.A U.S. military spokeswoman in Baghdad said she could not immediately confirm that the offensive had expanded from Sadah to Karabila and Rumana.No American casualties were reported in the offensive, which is aimed at rooting out al-Qaida militants the military believes have been using Sadah as a “sanctuary,” closing insurgent supply routes and stemming violence ahead of Iraq’s crucial vote on a new constitution on Oct. 15.However, al-Qaida in Iraq claimed to have captured two U.S. Marines participating in the offensive and threatened in a Web statement issued Sunday to kill them within 24 hours. The statement, posted on a Islamic militant Web forum and signed by al-Qaida in Iraq’s spokesman, Abuy Maysara al-Iraqi, did not include any identifying images or details.Its authenticity could not be verified.A U.S. military spokesman said he believed the claim was false.”I have not heard anything about any of our folks being taken,” Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said in a statement. “I would suspect that these are unfounded rumors, as that is what has happened in the past.”Also, a senior military commander said Sunday he was not backing off his assessment that U.S. forces in Iraq could be reduced early next year, even though an Army general has said the number of battle-ready battalions of Iraqi soldiers has fallen by two-thirds.Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Gen. John P. Abizaid did not offer a reason for the decrease in top-level Iraqi troops from three battalions to one. But he said more Iraqis are in the field at various levels of training and are participating in security operations than before.Elsewhere in Iraq, insurgents kidnapped the brother of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, the Shiite official who heads police forces, in Baghdad on Saturday, and the son of another top ministry official was kidnapped north of the capital, police said.Jabr was visiting Amman, discussing ways to cooperate with Jordan against terrorism, when his brother was snatched late Saturday. The minister said Sunday the abduction ultimately targeted him.”They wanted to pressure me,” Jabr told Jordan’s state-run Petra news agency.Sunni insurgents have vowed to derail the constitutional referendum and have launched a wave of violence that has killed at least 202 people – including 15 U.S. service members – in Iraq in the past seven days.Two U.S. soldiers were killed by explosions while on patrols Saturday – one in Baghdad and another in Beiji, 155 miles north of the capital, the military said.At least 1,935 service members have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.In new violence, two Iraqis were killed Sunday in drive-by shootings – a businessman in Baghdad and Iraqi soldier in Karbala, 50 miles to the south, police said.Police also found the bodies of four Iraqis in three different areas of Baghdad on Sunday, with their hands tied behind their backs. Suspected insurgents often kidnap and kill Iraqis, dumping their bodies in isolated areas – and Sunni Arab leaders accuse Shiite death squads of doing the same to Sunnis.The U.S. military reported that a 60-year-old Iraqi detainee who fell ill at Abu Ghraib prison died of a heart attack during surgery there.The assault on Sadah, called Operation Iron Fist, was the fourth large U.S. offensive near the Syrian border since May. But the militants running rampant in large parts of western Iraq have proven difficult to put down, fleeing in the face of the assaults, then moving back in after the assaults end and the bulk of troops withdraw.On Sunday, insurgents hiding in houses fired sporadically on U.S. troops in the street from time to time but Sadah largely was calm, said residents in the village eight miles east of the Syrian border.On the offensive’s first day, troops destroyed several car bombs and at least one roadside bomb, and there were two clashes with gunmen, the military said Sunday in its first detailed report on the operation.Insurgents drove two vehicles toward a U.S. Marine position, dismounted and began to attack with small-arms fire, the military said Sunday. One vehicle was found to be rigged with explosives. The battle left four insurgents dead, the military said, and a fifth surrendered.North of Sadah, U.S. forces killed three members of the al-Qaida in Iraq insurgent group after they attacked a U.S. checkpoint with small-arms fire, the military said.Another militant was killed when a U.S. Cobra helicopter destroyed a vehicle after its driver fired on a Marine position with a rocket-propelled grenade, the military said.The Cobra also destroyed a second vehicle believed to be carrying grenades, but the vehicle’s driver and passenger escaped, the military said.Sadah, 180 miles northwest of Baghdad, is an isolated village of about 2,000 people, with one main road and about 200 houses scattered in a rural area near Qaim in Iraq’s western province of Anbar.The U.S. military said al-Qaida in Iraq, the country’s most fearsome militant group that has launched a wave of suicide bombings, had taken control of Sadah, and foreign fighters were using it as a way station as they enter from Syria to join the insurgency.Al-Qaida and other Sunni-led insurgents have stepped up their campaign of violence, killing at least 205 people this week in an attempt to wreck the upcoming constitutional referendum, a vital step in Iraq’s political process.Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority – which ruled under Saddam Hussein but lost power after his ouster – opposes the draft charter, fearing it will split Iraq and consecrate Shiite and Kurdish domination.Al-Qaida in Iraq has declared “all-out war” on Shiites, and since a Shiite-majority government took power in Iraq on April 28, suicide bombers have killed at least 1,345 people, according to an Associated Press count.
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