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Iraqi insurgents go on rampage, kill 61
Updated: 2005-05-11 20:18

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Four car bombs and a man with explosives strapped to his body killed at least 61 people and wounded more than 100 in three Iraqi cities Wednesday as hundreds of U.S. troops pushed through a lawless region near the Syrian frontier in an offensive aimed at followers of Iraq's most-wanted terrorist.

This week's offensive came amid a surge of deadly car bombings, ambushes and other attacks after Iraq's first democratically elected government was announced April 28. Insurgents are averaging about 70 attacks a day this month, up from 30-40 in February and March, said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq.

In Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad, a man with hidden explosives slipped past security guards protecting a police and army recruitment center on Wednesday and blew himself up just outside the building where some 150 applicants were lined up. At least 30 people were killed and 35 injured, police said.

"I was standing near the center and all of a sudden it turned into a scene of dead bodies and pools of blood," police Sgt. Khalaf Abbas said by cell phone from the chaotic scene. "Windows were blown out in nearby houses, leaving the street covered with glass."

In Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, a suicide car bomb exploded in a small market near a police station, killing at least 27 people and wounding 75, police and hospital officials said. The attacker swerved into a crowd after heavy security prevented him from reaching the police station, police said.

Three more car bombs targeting a police station and patrols exploded Wednesday in Baghdad, killing four people and wounding 14, police said.

Operation Matador, which began late Saturday, was launched after U.S. intelligence showed that followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had taken refuge in the desert border region — believed to be a haven for smugglers and foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria. Many of the insurgents were believed to have fled to remote parts of Anbar province after losses in Fallujah and Ramadi, farther east.

As many as 100 insurgents were killed in the first 48 hours of the offensive as U.S. troops cleared villages along the southern banks of the meandering Euphrates River, then crossed in rafts and on a pontoon bridge, the U.S. command said. Many of the dead remained trapped under rubble after attack planes and helicopter gunships pounded their hideouts.

At least three Marines were reported killed and 20 wounded in the first four days of the offensive — the biggest U.S. operation since Fallujah was taken from militants six months ago.

Two civilians — a woman and a child — were killed Tuesday at a U.S. checkpoint southeast of Obeidi, the border town 200 miles west of Baghdad that saw some of the fiercest fighting of the offensive, the military said.

U.S. Capt. Jeffrey Pool said Marines fired at their vehicle after it ignored repeated warnings to stop. The driver jumped out of the moving car and fled, leaving the vehicle and its passengers to continue toward the checkpoint, Pool said. The driver was apprehended and held for questioning. The Marines said they believed the vehicle was a suicide car bomb, the statement said.

East of Husaybah, a town about 200 miles northwest of Baghdad, Marine AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters shot and killed three armed men seen digging holes Tuesday in a road in which to place explosives, Pool said. Late that night, in the same town, Marines shot and killed four insurgents armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, he said.

After intense fighting with militants entrenched on the south bank of the Euphrates River early in the operation, Marines saw only light resistance Tuesday and advanced through sparsely populated settlements along a 12-mile stretch toward the border, said James Janega, a Chicago Tribune reporter embedded with the assault.

Gunmen kidnapped the governor of Anbar province Tuesday and told his family he would be released only when U.S. forces withdrew from Qaim, the town 200 miles west of Baghdad where the offensive began Saturday. Gov. Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi was seized as he drove from Qaim to the provincial capital of Ramadi, his brother, Hammad, told The Associated Press.

At the Pentagon, Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the assault in the northern Jazirah Desert had run into well-equipped and trained fighters.

"There are reports that these people are in uniforms, in some cases are wearing protective vests, and there's some suspicion that their training exceeds what we have seen with other engagements further east," he said.

Marine commanders told The Chicago Tribune that militants put up an unexpectedly intense fight in villages along the Euphrates as it snakes across the desert toward Syria.

As troops erected a pontoon bridge Sunday, mortar fire fell on them from Obeidi, the Tribune said. Navy and Marine F/A-18 Hornet strike jets strafed the tree line and Marine Cobra attack helicopters fired rockets into insurgent hideouts, it reported.

When Marines entered the town Sunday, they found insurgents prepared for battle. Sandbag bunkers stood in front of some houses, and gunmen fired from roofs and balconies, according to an embedded Los Angeles Times reporter. As fighting continued into Monday, the insurgents ferried weapons across the river.

At one point, the paper said, a Marine walked into a house and a fighter hiding in the basement fired through a floor grate, killing him. Another Marine suffered shrapnel wounds from a grenade tossed through the window of a house where he was retrieving a wounded comrade, the Times said.

In another battle in Obeidi, foreign fighters lay in a narrow crawl space under a one-story house and fired their machine guns up through the floor, according to an embedded Washington Post journalist. As Marines tried to rescue a fallen comrade, the insurgent gunfire repeatedly drove them back, the reporter said.

It eventually took five Marine assaults, grenades, a tank, a rocket launcher and bombs dropped by a U.S. warplane to kill the insurgents Monday, the reporter said.

The Marines got their fallen man, suffering one more dead and at least five wounded, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

"They came here to die," it quoted Marine Gunnery Sgt. Chuck Hurley as saying. "They were willing to stay in place and die with no hope. All they wanted was to take us with them."

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