BAGHDAD, Iraq — The U.S. military launched Operation Iron Fist in Anbar province early Saturday in an effort to dislodge a stubborn insurgency in western Iraq, a military statement said.
The Marine-led operation is taking place in the town of Sa’da, about 12 miles from the Syrian border, and involves about 1,000 Marines, soldiers and sailors from the Regimental Combat Team-2.
The border with Syria has long been considered a porous entry point for foreign fighters coming into Iraq.
“Operation (Iron Fist) began in the early morning hours with the objectives of rooting out Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) terrorists operating within the area and disrupting insurgent support systems in and around the city,” the U.S. military said.
CNN producer Arwa Damon, embedded with U.S. forces, said the Marine squadron she was traveling with encountered little resistance and only sporadic gunfire — small arms and rocket-propelled grenades — as they made their way into town. According to Damon, Marines were searching house to house for insurgents.
One family in Sa’da told U.S. forces that most of their neighbors fled ahead of the advancing Marines, afraid their city would become another Falluja — a former insurgent stronghold that was essentially leveled in a U.S.-led assault.
In other sections of the city, Cobra attack helicopters fired on three suspicious vehicles, CNN’s Jennifer Eccleston reported. Two turned out to to be car bombs and the third was hit as men were loading weapons into it, the military said.
One U.S. soldier has been wounded during the operations, military officials said.
Marine forces, stretched thin in the vast expanse of Anbar, some 30,000 square miles, have played a game of cat and mouse with the insurgency up and down the Euphrates River valley for months, said Col. Stephen Davis, commander of the combat team, earlier in the week.
At that time, Davis said U.S. and Iraqi forces were being moved into the region bound by the Euphrates River, Saudi Arabia and the Syrian border.
In the past, forces have invaded a city — taking it back from the insurgents — only to have the insurgents return once they have withdrawn. The only city in the area with a permanent U.S. and Iraqi presence in the area is the city of Hit, after coalition forces took control about two months ago.
“For the past several months, terrorists within Sa’da have escalated their intimidation and murder campaign against the local populace and city government officials,” the military said.
“The resulting effect was an increased ability to move freely within the area and a base for them to launch attacks against innocent civilians, Iraqi Security Forces and Coalition Forces.”
Operation Iron First was launched two weeks ahead of an October 15 national referendum on a new Iraqi constitution.
# Two U.S. soldiers were killed, bringing the number of U.S. troop deaths in the Iraqi war to 1,938. One soldier was killed in a roadside bombing in Baghdad, and the other by a mine near Baiji, the U.S. military said. Two Iraqi soldiers were killed when gunmen opened fire at their car in Muqdadiya, north of Baghdad, police said.
# Sheikh Saleh Hassan Ayash, a Sunni imam from the Arafat mosque, was killed by gunmen in the Ameen neighborhood of eastern Baghdad, police said.
# Iraq’s Justice Ministry released 459 detainees from Abu Ghraib prison Saturday morning. According to a ministry official, all of those released had been accused of minor crimes. The holy month of Ramadan is scheduled to begin next week and pardon is often extended to those accused of minor crimes.
# President Jalal Talabani, the top Kurdish member of Iraq’s transitional government, claimed the Shiite Arab Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is violating provisions of the country’s transitional law. The Shiite-Kurdish coalition has been a major step in Iraq’s road to democracy and any tension could pose problems for the government in the weeks before the October 15 constitutional referendum.