HADITHA, Iraq – About 1,000 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers encircled this Euphrates River city in the troubled Anbar province before dawn on Wednesday, launching the second major anti-insurgent operation in this vast western region in less than a month.
Helicopters swept down near palm tree groves to drop off Marines who blocked off one side of Haditha, while other troops on foot and in armored vehicles established checkpoints and moved toward the city’s center. U.S. warplanes circled overhead.
According to initial reports, three insurgents were killed during several fierce gunbattles that broke out after U.S. forces entered this town before dawn, Marine Capt. Christopher Toland told an Associated Press reporter embedded with U.S. forces. Two Marines also were wounded and evacuated, Toland said.
The offensives are aimed at uprooting insurgents who have killed more than 620 people since a new Iraqi government was announced on April 28.
“Right now there’s a larger threat than should be in Haditha and we’re here to tell them that they’re not welcome,” said Lt. Col. Lionel Urquhart, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, which is part of the operation.
A small reconnaissance unit of Iraqi soldiers was participating in the attack on the northwestern city, Urquhart said, but the offensive reflected the continued need for U.S. operations to clear out insurgents from Sunni-dominated areas of the country.
Haditha has no functioning police force, and U.S. military officials acknowledged their presence has been light in the city but said Iraqi troops were expected to arrive soon.
The assault, called Operation New Market, focused on this city of about 90,000 people, where the U.S. military says insurgents have been using increasingly sophisticated tactics.
Earlier this month, a well-coordinated attack was launched from a Haditha hospital, killing four U.S. troops in an ambush that included a suicide car bomber, a roadside bomb and gunfire. The hospital was partially destroyed in the attack.
Marines took over several homes in Haditha, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad, using them as observation and control centers while other troops fanned out through mainly empty streets in an apparent bid to flush out any insurgents. At least one loud explosion rocked the city early Wednesday morning, but the source of the blast was not known.
“A lot of this is like bird hunting. You rustle it up and see what comes up,” said Marine Col. Stephen W. Davis, commander of the operation made of troops in Marine Regimental Combat Team 2.
Earlier this month, American forces conducted a weeklong operation in the city of Qaim and other Iraqi towns near the Syrian border aimed at rooting out militants allied to Jordanian-born terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and destroying their smuggling routes into Syria. At least 125 militants were killed in that operation, along with nine U.S. Marines, the military said.
Syria is under intense pressure from the United States and the Iraqi government to stop foreign fighters from entering
Iraq across their porous 380 mile-long border.
“There are responsibilities of the Syrian government to hamper and prevent this flow of terrorists from coming across,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said at a joint news conference with visiting Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini.
Violence continued elsewhere Wednesday, a day after four U.S. soldiers were killed, pushing the number of U.S. troops killed in four days to 14, part of a surge in attacks that also have killed about 60 Iraqis.
A roadside bomb exploded Wednesday next to a U.S. patrol in southern Baghdad, wounding one American soldier, U.S. military and police officials said.
A suicide car bomber also blew himself up but missed a U.S. military convoy in Baghdad’s southern neighborhood of Dora, police Capt. Firas Ghaiti said. The attack left one civilian dead and four wounded.
Gunmen killed Iraqi army Capt. Ali Abdul-Amir as he left his house in the town of Khalis, 50 miles north of Baghdad, army Col. Abdullah al-Shammari said.
In the northern city of Mosul, Col. Mukhlef Moussa of the Facility Protection Service, a U.S.-trained civilian guard force, was shot to death as he walked on the campus of Mosul University, Brig. Gen. Wathiq Mohammed said.
In the northern city of Dahuk, 250 miles northwest of Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed a traffic policeman and wounded 10 people, including seven policemen, police Col. Nazim Silevani said.
Sunni and Shiite clerics and politicians also have been intensifying efforts to find a way out of a sectarian crisis that threatens a civil war. Sunnis opposed to the new government are thought to make up the insurgency’s core, and some Sunni extremists have been attacking Shiites.
About 3,000 Iraqi Shiite Muslim protesters staged a noisy demonstration Wednesday in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, to denounce recent comments made by a prominent Sunni leader who accused a Shiite militia of killing Sunni clerics.
Shortly before the U.S. assault began, insurgents fired a mortar at a hydroelectric dam facility near Haditha where hundreds of Marines are based.
“Hold on, we’ll be there in a minute,” yelled Marine Sgt. Shawn Bryan, of Albuquerque, N.M., assigned to the 3rd Marine Battalion, from a platform on the dam as Marines scrambled into vehicles to try to locate the attackers.
U.S. officials said they hoped their presence would allow locals to feel safe enough to provide tips to the military.
“The people out there know who wrecked the hospital and those who target their power source,” said Urquhart, referring to the dam that is said to provide about a third of Iraq’s electricity.
Several other attacks have occurred in Haditha this year, including the April 17 killing of a police chief and the discovery three days later of the bodies of 19 fishermen. U.S. military officials say it’s unclear if the fishermen were killed in a tribal dispute or by insurgents.
Haditha lies along a major highway used by travelers moving from western Iraq to major cities such as Mosul and Baghdad in the central and northern parts of the country.
In another development, Iraqi security forces have killed Sabhan Ahmad Ramadan, a senior aide to al-Zarqawi in northern Iraq, the government said Wednesday. The announcement came a day after a Web statement in the name the group said that al-Zarqawi had been wounded. But U.S. officials cautioned they did not know if the posting was authentic and privately said the information also may have been designed to purposely mislead.