U.S. Warplanes Target Alleged Rebel Havens Along Iraq-Syria Border

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

BAGHDAD, Aug. 30 -- U.S. warplanes bombed alleged safe houses being used by Abu Musab Zarqawi's insurgent group near the Syrian border Tuesday during what one local leader called an unprecedented push by a Sunni Arab tribe to drive out Zarqawi's foreign-led forces.

The bombings occurred along the Euphrates River in two towns that U.S. officials and Iraqis describe as havens and transit points for insurgents moving weapons, money and recruits into Iraq from Syria. Ali Rawi, an emergency room director in the border city of Qaim, said at least 56 people -- the majority of them apparently followers of Zarqawi -- were killed in Tuesday's airstrikes and ground fighting. Zarqawi's group, al Qaeda in Iraq, said in a statement posted in local mosques that it had lost 17 men.

Neither U.S. nor Iraqi officials gave death tolls.

The clashes between Sunni Arab tribes and insurgents, coupled with growing vows by Iraq's Sunni minority to turn out in force for national voting in the coming months, coincided with U.S. hopes for defusing the two-year-old insurgency. U.S. military leaders have repeatedly expressed optimism that public anger at insurgent violence would deprive insurgents of their base of support.

A tribal leader near the Syrian border, Muhammed Mahallawi, said his Albu Mahal tribe began the latest fighting against Zarqawi's insurgents after they kidnapped and killed 31 members of his tribe to punish them for joining the Iraqi security forces.

"We decided either we force them out of the city or we kill them," with the support of U.S. bombing, Mahallawi said by telephone.

Sunni Arab tribes in the western province of Anbar have clashed sporadically with Zarqawi's organization since at least May, usually in revenge for killings of tribe members accused of collaborating with U.S. forces or the Iraqi government. This month in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, tribes took up arms to block Zarqawi's group from enforcing his ultimatum for all Shiite Muslim families to leave the city. Fighting there killed several fighters on both sides.

Local officials said Tuesday that Mahallawi's tribe and the insurgents had been fighting near the border for at least three days. Rawi, the emergency room director, said at least 61 people had been killed since the fighting began. The majority of the dead Tuesday were in the Western-style clothes and athletic shoes often worn by Zarqawi's fighters, Rawi said.

The U.S. military confirmed six airstrikes at dawn Tuesday on two residences in and around Husaybah believed to house insurgents. When survivors of those attacks drove three miles to another residence in Karabilah, the U.S. warplanes hit that house with two bombs, a U.S. military statement said.

The military said it believed the precision-guided bombs killed several insurgents.

Residents said one of the airstrikes hit a weapons cache, setting off explosions in the house. Another targeted building was a former clinic that had been taken over by Zarqawi, residents said.

There was no word from the U.S. military on whether the airstrikes were coordinated with Zarqawi's tribal opponents. On Friday, a U.S. military statement credited strikes by Marine F-18D fighters on an alleged Zarqawi safe house in Husaybah to tips by telephone from local citizens. With Zarqawi and his allies trying to consolidate control of the border towns, "local leaders and sheikhs are resisting AQIZ's murder and intimidation campaign," a military statement said, using an acronym for Zarqawi.

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