By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
BAGHDAD, May 10 -- Intense fighting in a string of towns along the Syrian border in northwestern Iraq showed signs of subsiding Tuesday, as U.S. forces wound down an assault on foreign insurgents.
By daybreak, clashes had waned and insurgents who had suffered heavy casualties in recent days retreated to safe houses in the communities at the western edge of Anbar province, according to Col. Bob Chase, operations chief for the 2nd Marine Division.
Insurgents kidnapped the province's governor, Raja Nawaf Farhan Mahalawi, but it was unclear whether his abduction was intended as retaliation for the military operations.
An Iraqi military officer in Anbar said the kidnapping took place when the governor, his son and a local police chief were traveling to observe the U.S. assault and were ambushed by armed men. It was believed to be a joint operation conducted by two insurgent groups, al Qaeda in Iraq and Ansar al-Islam.
In a statement posted in a mosque in the city of Hit, west of Ramadi, al Qaeda in Iraq said the governor, his son and four bodyguards had been taken. "The governor . . . is being interrogated now to know if he committed crimes along with the occupation or stood against the holy warriors," the statement said.
Chase, the Marine officer, said local people were supporting the Americans' efforts. "We are getting a lot of information from the locals in the area and a very positive reception. They are giving up locations of where these people are hiding out, and each one drives another operation," he said.
In Washington, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway said three Marines had been killed and fewer than 20 wounded in the campaign. Conway said insurgents were standing and fighting rather than fleeing. "This is a determined enemy," he said. "He has the skill and the ordnance, the weapons to be able to resist fiercely, as we're seeing here."
As the fighting between Marines and insurgents began to ebb Tuesday morning, families streamed eastward out of Qaim, a border town 200 miles northwest of Baghdad.
"If we haven't fled, we would die in our houses either from hunger or the bombings. For 10 days there is no electricity, and water and all the food we have is decayed," said Dhiab Ahmed, 49, who waited for a bus to Ramadi with his wife and four children. "We are victims as we are among the two fighting sides. They have to understand that they should fight outside the city."
Hamdi Alousi, head of Qaim hospital, said in a telephone interview that 21 civilians had been killed and dozens wounded by fighting in the city. The casualties included five hospital workers killed by munitions that Alousi said were fired by U.S. aircraft around 7 a.m.
Chase said U.S. aircraft had struck no targets in that vicinity Tuesday.
Early on Tuesday, Marines also repelled an attempted suicide bombing near Qaim, when two insurgent vehicles approached a Marine convoy traveling near a bridge close to military base.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington contributed to this report.