U.S. Marines are fighting house-to-house through a town near Iraq’s border with Syria in an effort to cleanse the area of foreign fighters, the U.S. military announced yesterday.
Officials offered few details of the fighting, which was taking place near the border town of Qaim. Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said the offensive began over the weekend based on information that fighters loyal to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the most wanted man in the nation, were operating in the Qaim area.
At least 100 suspected insurgents have been killed. Three Marines also were killed in the region, and 20 were wounded, the U.S. military said.
“This area has been a haven for foreign fighters, and we’re putting the pressure on them,” Boylan said. “This is ground combat. It’s house-to-house operations.”
Rebels remained on the offensive in Baghdad, setting off two car bombs and staging an attack on the Ministry of Transportation. At least five people died in the capital and more than a dozen were wounded, mostly Iraqi policemen.
Meanwhile, several members of a Sunni Arab political bloc that had participated in negotiations over a new Iraqi government were carted off during the ransacking of its headquarters early yesterday morning.
Neither Iraqi nor U.S. forces claimed responsibility for the raid, which enraged Sunni Arab politicians and threatened to further stymie the Iraqi government’s efforts to reach out to the disaffected minority.
Iraq’s new defense minister, Saadoun al-Duleimi, a Sunni Arab, told journalists that Iraq’s new government must come up with a strategy that recognizes the difference between homegrown, nationalist fighters and foreign Islamic extremists. But he said the government must work to defeat both.
“All those trying to stop our progress in Iraq are our enemies, and we should be fighting and defeating them,” Duleimi said.
Sunni Muslim groups in Iraq condemned the Marine operation near Qaim, which is in Anbar province, home to the perennially troubled towns of Fallujah and Ramadi.
The Muslim Scholars Association, an influential group of militant Sunni clerics, called the operation “American state-sponsored terrorism of our towns and people.” The group claimed several civilians were among the casualties and that a hospital in Qaim had been bombed.
Members of another Sunni group, the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, spent yesterday investigating overnight raids of a member’s home and the group’s headquarters at a religious school in Baghdad. More than 20 members were missing after the raid, and the group’s office was in shambles.
The Dialogue group was involved in negotiations with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to garner cabinet posts for Sunni Arabs. However, the council withdrew from talks after Jaafari’s advisers rejected several of its candidates because of their alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
Among the men missing after the raids is Hassan Zeidan, who was at one time considered for a deputy prime minister post. Two guards taken with him were freed, naked and bloody, on Baghdad’s airport road, said Saadoun al-Zubaidi, a spokesman for the council. The group has had no word on the other men and doesn’t even know who has custody of them.
“Our group has emerged as an important political force, supported by the masses. It’s created a debate about the national program of Iraq, about balance and power-sharing and legitimacy,” Zubaidi said in an interview. “There are evil forces in this country who say we have to be undermined, broken down.”
U.S. military spokesmen said they had no information about the apparent raid and directed inquiries to the Iraqi government. Col. Mohammed Faeq of the Iraqi Army’s 303rd Battalion, responsible for the district, said he had no information about a raid. His men, he said, had been on an unrelated mission with U.S. forces in the search of a car-bomb factory during the time of the incident.