Wed, Oct 05, 2005 - Page 7 News List

US hits al-Qaeda in three cities

UNSAFE HAVENS The largest offensive in the western Anbar region this year comes less than two weeks before the Iraqi population votes on the nation's new constitution

AGENCIES , HAQLANIYAH, IRAQ, AND DUBAI

The US military launched a major offensive early yesterday in a cluster of cities in the Euphrates River valley aimed at al-Qaeda insurgents who were using the area as a safe haven and who had killed 20 marines there in August.

It was the second US offensive begun against al-Qaeda in Iraq militants in the Anbar region of western Iraq in four days, both coming as the country braces for a national referendum on its new constitution on Saturday next week.

Air strikes by US warplanes and dozens of helicopters set off explosions that lit the city skylines of Haqlaniyah, Parwana and Haditha before dawn yesterday. Barrages of gunfire also were seen in the night sky. Large sections of Haqlaniyah's power were knocked out.

Early yesterday, US airstrikes destroyed bridges in Haditha and Haqlaniyah to prevent insurgents from fleeing into the nearby desert, said Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Starling, the operations officer in Regimental Combat Team 2, which is leading the offensive.

Later in the day, US snipers took positions on rooftops in Haqlaniyah as other soldiers walked the streets using loudspeakers to order residents to stay inside their homes, witnesses said.

About 2,500 US marines, soldiers and sailors and hundreds of Iraqi troops took part in the operation, the largest US offensive in the troubled Anbar region of western Iraq this year, the military said. Yesterday's operation also appeared to contain more Iraqi soldiers than any other offensive ever conducted in the region.

The military reported some US casualties, but would not say how many or how severe. No information was available on insurgent casualties, but marines said at least one cache of mortars was seized and one suspect detained.

"The operation's goal is to deny [al-Qaeda in Iraq] the ability to operate in the three Euphrates River valley cities and to free local citizens from the insurgents' campaign of murder and intimidation of innocent women, children and men," the US military said in a statement.

On Saturday, about 1,000 service members launched a separate US offensive further to the west in the Euphrates River valley near the Syrian border in the village of Sadah and two nearby towns: Rumana and Karabila.

That "Iron Fist" operation, which continued yesterday, was against al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgents who receive reinforcements and supplies from inside Syria. At least 57 insurgents have been killed, with no serious casualties among US forces, the military said. Soldiers with air support were conducting house-to-house searches for militants.

Lieutenant Colonel Starling said his operation was linked to Iron Fist near the Syrian border.

Meanwhile, Sunni Arab leaders continued to criticize the Shiite-dominated parliament for passing a new ruling last weekend that could make it much more difficult for the Sunni minority to defeat the draft constitution that they oppose.

"This will make it impossible for residents of the Iraq's few mostly Sunni provinces to bring down the constitution," said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician. "The aim of this move is to pass the constitution and to impose it on everybody regardless of their opinions."

Al-Qaeda in Iraq meanwhile urged Sunni Muslims yesterday to step up attacks on US forces during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month which has seen some of the bloodiest attacks by militants hoping for rewards in paradise.

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