U.S. Launches Another Major Assault in Western Iraq

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 4, 2005; 11:03 AM

BAGHDAD, Oct. 4 -- The U.S. military Tuesday launched a second major assault in less than a week on cities in western Iraq in a hunt for foreign fighters whose attacks have increased in the weeks leading up to the Oct. 15 national referendum on a new Iraqi constitution.

About 2,500 U.S. troops and hundreds of Iraqi soldiers took part in the operation, codenamed River Gate, the military said in statements. The offensive centered on Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Barwana, Sunni cities located in the Euphrates River valley in western Anbar province. Meanwhile, Operation Iron Fist, another assault launched four days ago in the Qaimregion of Anbar province near the Iraqi-Syrian border continued, as troops searched for fighters connected to al Qaeda in Iraq who freely roamed the streets of Sadah and surrounding towns.

The U.S. military said three soldiers and a Marine died in combat actions on Monday. Three soldiers assigned to a Marine combat team were killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) in two separate attacks in Haqlaniyah. A Marine died from an IED in Karabilah in the operation near the Syrian border, according to the military.

The military said the operations aimed to reclaim the cities from insurgents and cut off routes used to smuggle weapons and militants to cities in other parts of Iraq. In announcing the launch of Operation River Gate on Tuesday, the military said the goal was to deny al Qaeda in Iraq the ability to operate in the three river cities and "to free the local citizens from the terrorists' campaign of murder and intimidation of innocent women, children and men."

Haditha, a city of 75,000 residents, is a key crossroads for al Qaeda in Iraq's smuggling activities from the Syrian border, the military said. Once in Haditha, smugglers can go north to Mosul or continue to Ramadi, Fallujah and Baghdad.

Most of the residents are farmers, fishermen and former members of the Iraqi Army under the ousted government of Saddam Hussein.

Flames from U.S. air strikes illuminated the skylines of the three cities just before dawn on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. Bridges across the Euphrates River between Haqlaniyah and Haditha were bombed to prevent insurgents from using them, the wire service reported.

Saad Mahdi Amiri, an Iraqi Army lieutenant who was among the forces engaged in the assault, said most of the neighborhoods of all three cities were under control of the joint forces by late afternoon. He said 86 suspects were detained. Two large weapons caches were discovered in Haqlaniyah, Amiri said.

"The armed men are the remnants of al Qaeda who escaped from Qaim to these areas, and we are chasing them here."

Ibrahim Abdul Karim, 50, a teacher and resident of Haditha, said the U.S. forces broke into his house and searched all of the occupants. He said they tested their hands for explosives. "The Marines did not give us any time to allow the women to put on the hajib [head scarf] and go out with proper clothes," he said. "They broke into the house like Holako," he said, referring to a famous Mongolian barbarian who invaded the Arab homeland and burned Baghdad centuries ago.

Mohammed Hadithi, the head of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society in Haditha, charged the U.S. troops violated the rights of residents during the assault. The Marines "neglected the humanitarian standards," he said. "If the American people come and see the army they are proud of doing that to unarmed women and children, they would have disowned the army because those they are looking for have escaped hours before they came and attacked."

His accusation could not independently verified.

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