Large numbers of US forces supported by helicopters gathered outside this Euphrates River village yesterday as a region-wide operation to wipe out supporters of Iraq's most wanted militant continued into its seventh day.
An AP reporter saw a large convoy of mainly US Marines, backed by tanks, redeploy several kilometers from Rommana to Obeidi, on the river's northern bank, in a massive troop buildup that forced scared residents indoors.
The Obeidi operation appeared to signal a continuation of the high-profile Operation Matador, launched last Saturday in several villages close to the Syrian border known as major routes for foreign fighters entering Iraq to battle coalition forces.
Residents said US troops blocked the main road linking Obeidi with safer areas to the east outside the field of operations.
``There is fear among the residents of Obeidi, but we don't think it [the village] has any military importance. There are no fighters in the village,'' said Obeidi resident Khalaf Ali, 35.
The campaign, the largest since insurgents were forced from Fallujah six months ago, has killed more than 100 suspected foreign fighters allied with Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the military has said. Scores have also been captured.
Al-Zarqawi, a Sunni Muslim terror mastermind, has claimed responsibility for scores of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings in a bid to derail the US-backed, Shiite-led government.
Operation Matador came amid a surge of militant attacks that have killed at least 430 people across Iraq since the government was announced April 28.
Violence continued yesterday with three Iraqi street cleaners being killed and four injured when a roadside bomb exploded apparently prematurely in Dora, a southern Baghdad neighborhood, said Dr. Zaid Adil of Yarmouk Hospital.
A suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle near an Iraqi police patrol in central Baqouba, north of the capital, wounding three policemen and a civilian, said police colonel Mudhafar Muhammed.
Seven mortar rounds slammed into Baghdad's international airport at 9am, but no casualties or damages were reported, police Captain Talib Thamir said.
At least nine more Iraqis were killed and 19 wounded Friday in a series of bombings, ambushes and other attacks.
Also Friday, a gunfire exchange with US forces in Mosul, 362km northwest of Baghdad killed five Iraqi civilians and three suspected insurgents, the American military said.
US Marines on Friday characterized the violence in Iraq's vast Anbar region, which includes Obeidi and Qaim, as intertribal fighting, adding Marines have not conducted operations inside Qaim, a town of 50,000 people, since the campaign's opening days.
During the past few days in Qaim and nearby smaller villages, Iraqi fighters have been brazenly swaggering through rubble-strewn streets, toting machine guns and grenade launchers and setting up checkpoints in preparation to do battle.
But in Obeidi, the streets were virtually empty yesterday as residents bolted doors, remained inside and waited for a possible US offensive.
Overnight, US warplanes streaked noisily overhead and several loud explosions were heard in various locations throughout the region, but the source of the blasts nor details on possible casualties were not immediately clear.
This remote desert region is a haven for foreign combatants who slip across the border along ancient smuggling routes and collect weapons to use in some of Iraq's deadliest attacks, according to the US military. But fighters in the Sunni town of Qaim, some 200km west of Baghdad, insist there are no foreigners among them.