By Ellen Knickmeyer and Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 15, 2005
UBAYDI, Iraq, May 14 -- U.S. Marines rumbled back across the Euphrates River on a floating bridge Saturday, ending a week-long offensive against foreign fighters that had taken U.S. forces within two miles of the Syrian border.
Marines said the sweep north of the Euphrates, called "Operation Matador," was a success. Involving more than 1,000 Marines, it was the largest sustained U.S. offensive since the assault on Fallujah six months ago.
"The mission was to put on the pressure and show they did not have a safe haven from us. They ran from us," Lt. Col. Tim Mundy of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment said on the riverbank, as Army engineers broke down the linked rafts that the Marines and their armored vehicles had traversed on their way to and from the campaign.
The operation had targeted foreign insurgents, particularly followers of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader blamed for many of the suicide bombings in Iraq. The hunt took Marines to a part of northwestern Iraq where neither Iraq's new government nor its security forces have a foothold, and where U.S. forces have not ventured in large numbers for a year.
The offensive came at a cost of at least nine Marines killed and about 40 wounded, Marines said.
The U.S. military said in a statement that the operation had killed more than 125 insurgents, most of whom died in a battle that broke out at Ubaydi last Sunday as Marines were massing for the river crossing. In addition, 39 "terrorists of intelligence value" were detained, the statement said.
Al-Arabiya television showed footage of a small demonstration in the city of Qaim, where people were demanding the release of a 57-year-old woman reportedly detained by U.S. Marines. Wafiq Samarrai, security adviser for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, told al-Arabiya that "some sheiks contacted us and said the U.S. Marines have detained women in the city of Qaim. We called the multinational forces, and they denied this news."
In central Baghdad on Saturday, a suicide bomber targeted a police patrol, killing three Iraqis and wounding more than 35. The 1:30 p.m. car bombing on Nidhal Street sent thick plumes of black smoke into the air.
"In these days, we know only when we are going to leave our houses, but we do not know if we will return back home or not," said a 17-year-old laborer who gave his name as Saad. "For the last three weeks, I always kiss my mother and sisters goodbye before I leave home, and my mother cries when I do that, but I have to do it and I have to go out because I am the only one now to support them."
In a second attack, insurgents hurled grenades at a police convoy in western Baghdad, killing one policeman, the Reuters news agency reported.
Meanwhile, drive-by gunmen killed Jassim Mohammed Ghani, identified by police as a senior Foreign Ministry official, outside his Baghdad home around 9 p.m. Saturday night, the Associated Press reported.
But Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in a telephone interview that no one by that name held a senior post in the ministry. Zebari added that the slain man may have worked at the Foreign Ministry at a lower level or been a former employee. "He is definitely not a senior official of the ministry or we would have known him," Zebari said.
Insurgents have targeted Iraqi government officials in an attempt to sabotage postwar reconstruction efforts. The offensive in western Iraq came during a surge of insurgent attacks that have killed at least 430 people across Iraq since Iraq's National Assembly approved a new transitional government on April 28.
The operation employed coordinated attacks by ground and air forces, with AH-1 Cobra helicopter gunships and AV-8 Harrier and F/A-18 Hornet jets backing Marines as they swept through towns and combed caves. Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Marine Regimental Combat Team 2, called the air campaign one of the successes of the offensive.
But the week-long village-to-village push along the river's north bank turned up few of the foreign fighters estimated by Marines to number in the hundreds. The foreign fighters apparently had been in the northern Euphrates towns as recently as two to three days before American forces arrived, said Maj. Steve Lawson of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, another ground commander in the attack.
"That was the frustrating piece: coming up here for a fight and not finding anyone," Lawson said.
Commanders said they believed some of the insurgents had slipped away to the east and to Husaybah, a lawless city on the Syrian border where foreign and local insurgents are believed to be battling among themselves for control.
The U.S. military in Iraq lacks the manpower to challenge the insurgent hold on Husaybah now, Mundy and other commanders said, and the Americans' focus will be on stabilizing the larger western cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.
Some Marines said they suspect other insurgents fled west, across the Syrian border. Residents of towns near the border told Marines that a large number of foreign fighters sped into Syria when the Marines temporarily removed a blocking force posted on a main route near the border.
On Friday, the hunt took Marines almost within rifle-shot range of the border. They probed caves in sheer rock cliffs on Friday, briefly looking for tunnels rumored to be used to move fighters, guns and other insurgent support across the border.
No tunnels were found, Lawson said.
In Baghdad, a senior U.S. military official said American generals were pleased with the campaign. During the course of the week, however, U.S. officials had grown concerned about the absence of Iraqi forces at a time when Washington is trying to push this country's new security forces to the front of the fight against insurgents, the U.S. official said.
The Marines were initially supposed to play a blocking role for special-operations raids across the Euphrates against followers of Zarqawi, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. No results of the special-operations raids have been made public.
In some towns, residents, speaking to a reporter through a U.S. military interpreter, said Americans had come through their communities a few days ahead of the Marines, scaring foreign fighters into flight.
An unplanned 12-hour air and ground fight last Sunday at Ubaydi also cost the Marines the element of surprise, they said. So did a roughly 24-hour delay in launching the operation, caused by the difficulties Army engineers faced in stabilizing the Euphrates' banks to keep armored vehicles from bogging down, the Army and Marines said.
Murphy reported from Baghdad. Staff writer Bradley Graham and special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.