By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 5, 2005 1:27 PM
BAGHDAD, Nov. 5 -- U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major military offensive along a key part of the Syrian border Saturday to combat smuggling of foreign fighters and materials into Iraq and to lay the ground for national elections in six weeks, the U.S. military announced.
About 2,500 U.S. and 1,000 Iraqi troops were involved in the so-called Steel Curtain offensive in and around Husaybah, a town of about 30,000 people on the Syrian border about 200 miles west of Baghdad. The U.S. military says the town is a critical transit point and staging area for al Qaeda in Iraq, the radical insurgent group of Jordanian Abu Musab Zarqawi.
Residents of Husaybah reached by telephone said that they were awakened at dawn by four large explosions, followed by announcements over loudspeakers atop U.S. military vehicles that they should immediately leave through the town's northeast entrance. Dozens of families headed that way on foot under white flags, residents said.
A military spokesman said Saturday night that coalition forces had encountered "sporadic resistance -- mostly IEDs [roadside bombs] and small arms fire." He said coalition forces were providing temporary housing for about 400 displaced people from the town.
Residents said that Iraqi fighters had taken up positions in previously dug trenches while foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Egypt were engaging U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Local hospital officials said there were no immediate reports of casualties. There were no reports of U.S. or coalition casualties either, although the U.S. military often delays the release of such information for a day or longer.
A statement purportedly from al Qaeda in Iraq that was posted on a local mosque said that the group would retaliate for the offensive in coordination with people in Baghdad and elsewhere.
In other violence Saturday, 11 people, including a four-year-old boy, were killed at about 7:30 p.m. when gunmen sprayed their Kia mini-van with bullets in Baquba, about 30 miles north of Baghdad, police said. And prominent Sunni politician Fakhri al-Qaisi, a spokesman for the National Dialogue Council, was reportedly shot five times while driving alone in western Baghdad, according to a report by the Reuters news agency. Doctors said his injuries were "life-threatening."
The U.S. military reported that a soldier was killed by small arms fire south of Baghdad and a Marine died when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb near Habbaniyah, about 40 miles west of the capital.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a senior U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said the Steel Curtain offensive was part of an on-going, five-month campaign to stop the infiltration of foreign fighters, money and weapons from Syria into Iraq along the Euphrates River valley, which stretches from border almost to Baghdad.
The offensive is "designed to deny al Qaeda in Iraq the ability to operate in the Euphrates River Valley and to establish a joint permanent security presence along the Syrian border," a military statement said. "By eliminating terrorist influence in and around Husaybah, coalition and Iraqi security forces are providing a safe and secure environment to allow the Iraqi people in that region to vote in the upcoming Dec. 15 national elections."
Anbar province, where the offensive is underway, is one of only three of Iraq's 18 provinces that has a Sunni majority. It is the main center of an insurgency targeting U.S. forces and the Iraqi government. More than a third of all U.S. military fatalities in Iraq have occurred in Anbar province, which includes the insurgent strongholds of Ramadi and Falluja.
Because of its large Sunni population and security concerns, only two percent of Anbar's voters cast ballots in parliamentary elections in January, and about 32 percent voted in a constitutional referendum last month. More than 96 percent of the voters voted against the referendum, which was approved on the strength of overwhelming Shiite and Kurdish support elsewhere in the country.
The timing of the new offensive -- which came on the final day of Eid al-Fitr, a three-day festival that is one of the holiest holidays of Islam -- drew criticism from some politicians and ordinary Iraqis for being culturally insensitive, religiously divisive and politically counter-productive. Some said it could worsen the political gap between Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims and its minority Sunnis in the run-up to national parliamentary elections.
"We think that they are targeting us, the Sunnis, not Qaeda," Omar Obaidi, a 45-year-old government employee, said in a telephone interview as he walked out of town under a white banner with his wife and three children.
"We are in the third day of Eid. We are leaving the town not for fun but to save ourselves from death. Instead of having my family for a picnic in an amusement park, I am taking them out of the town, walking and expecting death every moment," he said. "Let Bush see how he created a generation that hates the Americans."
"It's against the rule of Islam, against the rule of religion, against the rule of any humanitarian attitude to spoil the festive day for the Iraqis in such a bloody action," said Saleh Mutlak, a hard-line Sunni politician in Iraq's parliament. "This will make the situation worse. I call on the American people to urge their government to find a civilized attitude. I don't think this fits with the reputation that the Americans have."
Military spokesman Lynch said that the new offensive was long planned and could not be derailed by Eid.
"Every planned operation, we take cultural sensitivity and things like holidays into consideration," Lynch said in an interview in his Baghdad office. "For the momentum of the operations to continue, the decision was made to conduct the operation this morning, fully conscious of the fact that there was indeed a religious holiday, but knowing that it was important to continue the momentum."
Some analysts have criticized the United States for engaging in several high-profile military offensives, only to withdraw from the areas and allow insurgents to reestablish themselves. Lynch said that was no longer the case.
"When there was a shortage of security forces, operations were conducted and people left because there weren't security forces to leave behind," he said. "But when you're in an environment like we're in now, with 211,000 trained and equipped members of the Iraqi security forces, people stay behind to maintain order and discipline. That's what happened at Tal Afar [after a recent offensive], and that's what will happen in Husaybah."
Correspondent Jonathan Finer and special correspondent Hasan Shammari in Baquba contributed to this report.