Insurgents Assert Control Over Town Near Syrian Border

Qaim

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By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 6, 2005

BAGHDAD, Sept. 5 -- Fighters loyal to militant leader Abu Musab Zarqawi asserted control over the key Iraqi border town of Qaim on Monday, killing U.S. collaborators and enforcing strict Islamic law, according to tribal members, officials, residents and others in the town and nearby villages.

Residents said the foreign-led fighters controlled by Zarqawi, a Jordanian, apparently had been exerting authority in the town, within two miles of the Syrian border, since at least the start of the weekend. A sign posted at an entrance to the town declared, "Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Qaim."

In other developments Monday, the U.S. Army warned noncombatants to leave a portion of the northeastern city of Tall Afar ahead of an expected assault on an insurgent stronghold there. Car bombs and other political violence around Iraq killed at least 33 Iraqi civilians and security force members. A U.S. soldier and two British troops also were killed, officials said.

The report from Qaim, about 200 miles west of Baghdad, marked one of insurgents' boldest moves in their cat-and-mouse duels with U.S. Marines along the Euphrates River. U.S. forces have described border towns in the area as a funnel for foreign fighters, arms and money into Iraq from Syria.

Insurgents have occasionally made similar shows of force, such as the takeover of a Baghdad neighborhood for a few hours late last month by dozens of gunmen. They then slipped away, having made the point that they can muster men as well as plant bombs. The weekend takeover of Qaim extended already heavy insurgent pressure on the people there and came after the U.S. military said it had inflicted heavy bombing losses on foreign-led fighters.

Marines conducted heavy airstrikes in the past week on suspected insurgent safe houses in the area. Ground fighting has also been reported between Zarqawi's group and Sunni Arab tribes more open to the Iraqi government and U.S. military.

Capt. Jeffrey Pool, a Marine spokesman in Ramadi, capital of the western province that includes Qaim, said he had no word of unusual activity in Qaim. Marines are stationed just outside the town, and no Iraqi government forces are posted inside, Pool said.

Witnesses in Qaim said Zarqawi's fighters were killing officials and civilians whom they consider to be allied with the Iraqi and U.S. governments or anti-Islamic. On Sunday, the bullet-riddled body of a young woman dressed in her nightclothes lay in a street of Qaim. A sign left on her corpse declared, "A prostitute who was punished."

Zarqawi's fighters have shot and killed nine men in public executions in the city center since the start of the weekend, accusing the men of being collaborators with U.S. forces, said Sheik Nawaf Mahallawi, a leader of the Albu Mahal, a Sunni Arab tribe that had clashed earlier with the foreign fighters.

Dozens of families were fleeing Qaim every day, Mahallawi said.

For local fighters now, "it would be insane to attack Zarqawi's people, even to shoot one bullet at them," the tribal leader said. "We hope the U.S. forces end this in the coming days. We want the city to go back to its normal situation."

Many of the towns along the river have been subject to domination by foreign-led fighters, despite repeated Marine offensives in the area since May. Residents and Marines have described insurgents escaping ahead of such drives, and returning when the offensives end.


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