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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Major Offensive Hits Insurgents on Iraqi Border - New York Times

Major Offensive Hits Insurgents on Iraqi Border - New York TimesNovember 6, 2005
Major Offensive Hits Insurgents on Iraqi Border

HUSAYBA, Iraq, Nov. 5 - Thousands of American and Iraqi troops laid siege on Saturday to this town near the Syrian border in one of the largest military assaults since American-led forces stormed the guerrilla stronghold of Falluja last year, Marine Corps officials said.

The sweep, aimed at shutting down the flow of foreign fighters along the Euphrates River, began early Saturday as 2,500 American troops and 1,000 Iraqi Army soldiers, all led by the Marines, cordoned off roads around Husayba before rolling into town in armored vehicles and marching in on foot.

Insurgents armed with Kalashnikovs opened fire down alleyways and from windows. Fighter jets streaked overhead, dropping 500-pound bombs. Explosions resounded throughout the day as the invading troops advanced house by house, searching each one.

By nightfall, the American-led forces had taken only several blocks in the town's western half and still had more than a mile to go before reaching the eastern edge. At least two Americans were wounded in combat. Marines began making camp in seized houses, while sporadic gunfire and mortar explosions could be heard in the streets.

American commanders say Husayba has become a bastion for cells of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the group led by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that claims credit for many of the deadliest suicide bombings of the war.

Husayba is one of the first and most vital stops for foreign jihadists who enter Iraq through a series of desert towns along the Euphrates River corridor, the commanders say.

The marines responsible for securing that vast desert region in Anbar Province have conducted a dozen or so operations along the corridor since spring, with mixed success.

The Saturday offensive was the most ambitious of those, partly because the American military seems intent on minimizing any chance that insurgents disrupt the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, the final stage in the process of establishing a full-term sovereign government.

"It's a cesspool; it's time for this area to get cleaned up," Col. Stephen W. Davis, of the Second Marine Division, said of Husayba. "Foreign fighters are the most virulent threat."

The operation is also a crucial test for the Iraqi security forces. This is the first time that multiple battalions of Iraqi Army soldiers have been deployed in combat, though they are still backed by the Americans, said Capt. Jeffrey Pool, a spokesman for the Second Marine Division.

In recent months, American officers have been saying it will be years before the Iraqi Army is able to operate on its own; in September, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, told the United States Senate that only one Iraqi battalion at that time was able to fight fully independent of American forces. President Bush has said a significant drawdown of the 160,000 American troops here will not take place until the Iraqis are capable of providing some security for their own country.

American commanders say foreign fighters make up a small part of the insurgency, but are instrumental in some of the most devastating attacks, particularly the ones involving deadly suicide car bombs that often kill dozens of Iraqis.

The Bush administration has increasingly expressed frustration at what it calls the inability of the Syrian government to stem the flow of fighters from its territory, though the Syrians say the border is too long and porous to control. While marines have been carrying out their offensives along the Euphrates, elite commando units have been deployed to other areas near Syria.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for the American command, said at a recent news conference that "the majority" of foreign fighters in Iraq were coming across from Syria. American operations in Anbar, he added, are intended to break up the transit routes for both jihadists and munitions, and to capture or kill the leaders of the various Qaeda cells.

"We're convinced that decimating their leadership has a significant effect on their operations," the general said.

Anbar Province, which is dominated by Sunni Arabs, has proved to be the most intractable swath of Iraq. Violence throughout the region and hatred of both the Americans and the Shiite-led Iraqi government dampened turnout there during a referendum last month on the nation's new constitution.

The American military said Saturday that a marine had been killed Friday after his vehicle hit a mine near the town of Habbaniya. Elsewhere in Iraq, near the town of Tallil, an American serviceman was killed and three were injured Saturday in a vehicle accident, the military said.

In Baghdad, a prominent Sunni Arab politician, Fakhri al-Qaisi, was seriously wounded when four gunmen opened fire on his car at 5 p.m., hitting him in the chest and a hand, said Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, one of Mr. Qaisi's political allies. Mr. Qaisi, a conservative dentist, had planned to run in the December elections as part of a hard-line Sunni Arab bloc.

In past interviews, he said he rarely slept at home because of a fear of assassination; he often spent the night in his car in various parts of Baghdad, he said.

"We were all shocked," said Mr. Mashhadani, speaking by telephone. "I feel this is just the beginning of assassination operations against the candidates."

In previous conversations, Mr. Qaisi did not say who might want to kill him, but he had harsh words for the Shiite religious parties that now control the transitional government. He was especially angry with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iranian-backed party led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim that is accused by many Sunni Arabs of supporting death squads. But Mr. Qaisi also has enemies among Sunni Arab leaders who, like Mr. Qaisi, claim to represent the disaffected people who form the backbone of the insurgency.

In virtually all the previous offensives along the Euphrates River corridor, marines found that the insurgents had largely moved away by the time the Americans invaded the towns.

The operations took several weeks to plan, and commanders suspect that the guerrillas somehow received leaked information, subverting any chance of surprise. Often, marines kicked down doors along dusty streets to find that homes had been abandoned.

But Marine Corps officers said Saturday that they were encountering resistance in Husayba. In the first hours after the operation began at 4 a.m., when infantry units pushed in from the west, there was little shooting. But by dawn, insurgents were firing Kalashnikov rifles and an occasional rocket-propelled grenade.

"We met more resistance than I expected," said Capt. Conlon Carabine of Indian Company of the Third Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment. "I thought they were planning more on a defensive posture."

The Americans found it difficult to spot the guerrillas, though they would occasionally see a black-clad figure sprinting through a house or down a street. Some officers called in airstrikes. Others ordered Abrams tanks to blast away with their main cannons. "I got bombs; he got bombs," Colonel Davis said. "I got more bombs than he got."

Even so, as they began the house-to-house searches, moving west to east like a croupier's rake, marines found empty rooms, with dishes washed and possessions carefully stored away, all awaiting the owners' return, as in other towns along the Euphrates that the Marines had invaded.

There had been an exodus of families during the past several weeks, officers said. It appeared that word of the offensive had leaked out in advance once again, or that insurgents had simply assumed that the Marines would strike Husayba because it had been the only major town along the Euphrates left untouched by the Americans in the recent offensives.

The Marine Corps says it plans to go through all the residences in Husayba and the immediate area, a total of 4,000 homes, but fears that insurgents may have left behind booby-traps or antipersonnel mines. In an operation last spring near the border, marines in the area of Qaim were raked with gunfire by insurgents hiding beneath the floorboards of a seemingly abandoned house; two Americans died before the house was seized.

In November 2004, thousands of insurgents fled Falluja ahead of the Marine-led siege, leaving behind only fighters intent on martyrdom to carry out a rear-guard action. The ones who escaped moved on to the nearby city of Ramadi, or to smaller villages in the area, like Karma. All across Anbar, the guerrillas find popular support and no lack of hiding places.

Last month, the American command released statistics showing a drop in the number of suicide bombs in August and September. Though attacks have increased over all compared with the same period in previous years, the decrease in suicide assaults shows that the recent offensives may be having some effect, commanders say.

Yet they also acknowledge that it is as hard as ever for the Americans to win widespread support among the people of Anbar. "It's a very primal fight," Colonel Davis said. "We don't do a lot of hearts and minds out here because it's irrelevant."

Kirk Semple reported from Husayba for this article, and Edward Wong from Baghdad. Sabrina Tavernise and John F. Burns contributed reporting from Baghdad.

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