BAGHDAD, Iraq - About 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops, backed by aircraft, tanks and amphibious vehicles, fanned out in a coordinated strike near the Syrian border yesterday in search of insurgents.
Heavy street fighting was reported in the town of Karabilah as U.S. forces engaged insurgents in the guerrilla stronghold. Marines reported destroying three buildings housing insurgents, while two suspected vehicle bombs were also blown up.
The assault, dubbed Operation Spear, was the third large-scale attack led by U.S. Marines in volatile Al Anbar province in the past six weeks. The area has long been the main bastion of Iraqi Sunni Arab guerrillas and foreign fighters filtering in over the porous Syrian border.
Two more Marines were slain by a roadside bomb near Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar, the military said yesterday. Their killings on Thursday were the latest in a surge of U.S. military deaths in the province, mostly resulting from improvised bombs placed along the region's perilous routes. At least 21 U.S. troops have been killed in Al Anbar since June 9.
Operation Spear is focusing on Karabilah, where Marines and insurgents have clashed on several occasions in recent weeks. Last Saturday, Marines said, a U.S. air strike on an insurgent checkpoint along a main road outside of Karabilah killed an estimated 40 insurgents, although local residents later disputed that, saying no guerrillas had been in the area.
"It has become clear to us that there's a very widespread intimidation campaign going on against the locals in and around the town," Col. Bob Chase, operations chief of the 2nd Marine Division, said yesterday.
There was no word on U.S. or overall casualties in yesterday's operation. The military reported that four civilians were injured and evacuated to a nearby medical center for treatment. All four were injured "after terrorists seized their home and fired at Marines and soldiers," a U.S. statement said.
Dr. Hamid Alousi, director of the General Hospital in nearby Qaim, said half a dozen bodies were stuck under a bombed house in Karabilah. "We can't get them out because of the continuous bombing," Alousi said.
More than 100 Iraqi troops were accompanying U.S. forces on Operation Spear, Chase said.
Al Anbar is a largely Sunni Arab province that has long been hostile to the presence of U.S. troops and the new U.S.-backed Iraqi government.
The central government in Baghdad exercises little direct control in Al Anbar, where the majority of the population stayed away from polling places during the Jan. 30 election.
Shiite Muslims and Kurds emerged as Iraq's new political power brokers, while Sunni Arabs from Al Anbar and elsewhere have relatively little representation in the new transitional government.
U.S. forces are stretched thin in the huge province, and recruiting local residents to join the armed forces has been difficult, because many people are hostile to the government or fear guerrilla retribution. Many Iraqi units assigned to Al Anbar are largely composed of Shiite and Kurdish recruits from other provinces.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday, at least 1,717 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations. Since May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 1,578 U.S. soldiers have died.
Lance Cpl. Chad B. Maynard, 19, Montrose, Colo.; killed Wednesday when an explosive detonated near his vehicle near Ramadi; assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
Pfc. Nathan B. Clemons, 20, Jacksonville, Fla.; killed Tuesday when an explosive detonated near his vehicle near Rutbah; assigned to the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2nd Marine Division.