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.
At Haditha Hospital, Dr. Abdul Qaider Obaidi, said the Marines also broke into the hospital and searched the facility, arresting the director, Waleed Hadeethi and his assistant. Obaidi said the Marines accused the two men of treating al Qaeda fighters. "They are using the hospital as a base for the combat operations," he added. Obaidi said he had no information about civilian casualties.
The American military said militants attacked the Haditha Hospital earlier this year with a suicide car bomb. More than half of the hospital was destroyed in the attack. Insurgents established fortified firing positions in the hospital and used patients and staff as human shields, the military said in a statement. "They attacked Marines from the hospital and later retreated from the Marine counterattack," according to the statement.
A statement posted on the Wihda mosque in Hit in Anbar that claimed to be from al Qaeda in Iraq denied that dozens of the organization's members have been killed in the assaults. The U.S. military had announced that 1,941 fighters have been killed.
The statement disputed that. "This is a dirty game just to increase the spirits of their soldiers and that only 20 were killed," it read.
Meanwhile in Baghdad on Tuesday, a suicide car bomber drove a vehicle into a checkpoint at the perimeter of the fortified Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy and the transitional Iraqi government. Initial reports from witnesses said 10 people were killed. Iraqi security forces blocked access to the area for several hours.
The checkpoint is the entry point used by Iraqi and Western journalists and by Iraqi civilians who work inside. Vehicular access to the checkpoint is supposed to be restricted, but Iraqi security forces often allow drivers in who merely wave pre-paid telephone cards as identification.
Witnesses said the bomber sped straight toward the concrete barriers and barbed wire at the checkpoint, instead of a mandatory U-turn required by the presence of the barriers.
Iraqi security forces have taken over primary protection of the checkpoint in recent days. They have shot randomly at cars in the area, causing passers-by to run for cover.
Elsewhere in Iraq, the police chief of Mussayyib survived an assassination attempt in the town, 40 miles south of Baghdad, said Capt. Muthanna Ahmed, the press officer of the Babil police command. Ahmed said five of the chief's body guards were wounded, one seriously. Iraqi security forces are frequently targeted by insurgents.
One Iraqi soldier was killed and two others were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded at an Iraqi army convoy in the northern city of Kirkuk, said Maj. Gen. Anwar Hama Ameen, commander of the second brigade.
Two senior police officers were also killed Monday night when armed men opened fire on their vehicle in central part of the city, said Col. Adel Zain Al Abideen of the Kirkuk police.
Armed men killed a captain of the emergency police, Zain Al Abideen said.
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.