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1,000 U.S. troops launch offensive in Iraq
Updated: 2005-05-25 20:25

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.

The offensives are aimed at uprooting insurgents who have killed more than 620 people since a new Iraqi government was announced on April 28. Many of those Insurgents are thought to be foreign fighters who have slipped across the border from Syria.

Syria is under intense pressure to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq across their porous 380 mile-long border. Both the United States and Iraq, at their highest leadership levels, have been demanding Syria do more. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said last week that he would soon visit Syria for talks with officials about repeated border infiltration.

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.

A Web statement in the name of al-Zarqawi's group, al-Qaida in Iraq, said the terrorist mastermind has 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.

Al-Zarqawi has denounced Iraqi Shiites as U.S. collaborators and said killing them, including women and children, was justified.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed on Tuesday, pushing the number of U.S. troops killed in four days to 14, part of a surge in attacks that have also killed about 60 Iraqis.

Sunni and Shiite clerics and politicians 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.

In Haditha, helicopters swept down near palm tree groves dropping off Marines who blocked off one side of the town, while other troops on foot and in armored vehicles established checkpoints and moved toward the center of this city, 140 miles northwest of Baghdad. U.S. warplanes circled overhead.

"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.

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 insurgents launched a multistage attack from a Haditha hospital, killing four U.S. troops in an ambush that included a suicide car bomber, a roadside bomb, and gunfire from fortified positions in the hospital, which was partially destroyed in the attack.

According to initial reports, three insurgents were killed during several fierce gun battles 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 were also wounded and evacuated, Toland said.

U.S. Marines took over several homes in Haditha, using them as observation and control centers as other troops fanned out through the city's mainly empty streets in an apparent bid to flush any insurgents out. At least one loud explosion rocked the city early this morning, but the source of the blast was unclear.

The latest campaign demonstrates the military's ongoing concerns about insurgents in both small and large cities in Sunni-dominated areas of the country where large U.S. operations are still necessary to clear populated areas.

Haditha has no functioning police force, and U.S. military officials acknowledge that their presence has been light in the city but say Iraqi troops are expected to arrive soon.

"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.

A small reconnaissance unit of Iraqi soldiers is participating in the attack, Urquhart added.

Shortly before the 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.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called on Syria Wednesday to stop the infiltration of foreign fighters across its borders into Iraq.

Zebari, speaking at a joint news conference with visiting Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini, said "there are responsibilities of the Syrian government to hamper and prevent this flow of terrorists from coming across."

Fini flew to Iraq on Wednesday for meetings with officials and to visit the southern town of Nasiriyah, where Italy sent some 3,000 troops to help with reconstruction after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Zebari said Italian troops will stay until at least "the end of the year." Fini said through a translator that "keeping Italian troops (in Iraq) will be linked to the demands of the new Iraqi government and Multi National Forces."

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