U.S. Marines and Iraqi soldiers began pulling out of a volatile area along the Syrian border Tuesday after what commanders called a successful operation aimed at driving insurgents out of the town of Karabilah and disrupting their network for bringing foreign fighters into Iraq.
Families displaced by fighting during the five-day offensive returned to Karabilah in cars and on foot to find scattered wreckage and more than three dozen bodies, according a physician from a nearby hospital. But some of those who came back said that despite the damage, the town was better for having been freed from the grip of insurgents.
"I am not sad about what happened to my house," said Jasim Mohammed Salih as he salvaged what he could from his wrecked home. "This house was destroyed in order to make us get rid of those vagabonds, those foreign fighters whom we hid. I welcomed them at the beginning and I thought they are going to fight the Americans only. But when I saw them killing us, the Iraqis, I knew we had made a mistake.
"The one who commits mistakes should endure the consequences."
Regimental Combat Team 2 of the 2nd Marine Division unleashed the offensive, called Operation Spear, on Friday after determining that insurgents had seized control of Karabilah and were operating checkpoints on area roads and menacing the town's residents. The town is located on the Syrian border, where the Euphrates River crosses into Iraq.
House-to-house searches, sporadic gunfights and repeated airstrikes succeeded in driving the insurgents out of town. Troops uncovered three workshops for making car bombs, several weapons caches and an apparent torture chamber, which held severely beaten men who said they had been captive for three weeks, according to Marine and news media reports.
The Marines said in a statement Tuesday that the operation, which involved more than 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi forces, "rooted out insurgent strongholds" and that 47 guerrillas were killed and one was detained for questioning.
"That is another in a string of successful operations that continue to disrupt and interdict insurgent activity in west Anbar province," the operation commander, Col. Steven Davis, told the Reuters news agency.
A Marine intelligence officer predicted that the insurgents would likely return, but said they could not hope to ultimately prevail. "Yeah, in a couple of weeks they'll be back and they'll make up for these losses. But that's fine, because we're not beating them in two weeks, we're beating them in two years," Capt. Thomas Sibley told Reuters.
A member of Karabilah's city council, Waleed Karbooli, said about 16 houses were destroyed and 71 were damaged. In addition, he said, three mosques, two schools and a medical clinic for children and pregnant women were wrecked. Interpreters working with the Marines told residents that the Americans would compensate those whose houses were destroyed.
Operation Spear was the Marines' third major push into the border area since the beginning of May. Foreigners intent on joining the insurgency in Iraq have been marshaled and trained in Syria, U.S. and Iraqi commanders have said, and then spirited across the border to join insurgent cells around the country. The network is believed to be operated by al Qaeda in Iraq, an organization led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian.
As the Marine operation wound down, comparatively little violence was reported around Iraq after several days of suicide attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere. The Iraqi Defense Ministry said one suicide bomber was prevented from carrying out an attack in Tuz Khormantu and that 11 weapons caches had been seized around the country.
A statement posted on the Internet and attributed to al Qaeda in Iraq, however, said the group had formed a special suicide brigade consisting entirely of Iraqis. "Tens of them rushed to register their names, and they were racing to meet their God," the statement said.
U.S. military officers and Iraqi officials have blamed most of the suicide attacks in Iraq on foreign fighters, though no statistics detailing the identities of attackers have been made public.
Special correspondents Bassam Sebti and Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.