For a second day, U.S. and Iraqi troops combed the city of Sadah near the Syrian border for insurgents loyal to al Qaeda, witnesses and the U.S. and Iraqi militaries said Sunday.
An Iraqi army captain said security forces had conducted house-to-house searches in about 80 percent of Sadah by Sunday evening before taking control of most of the city. He said the searches yielded weapons but few foreign fighters from al Qaeda in Iraq, an insurgent network led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian.
"We think Zarqawi's group escaped before the assault, because the U.S. forces were not engaged in heavy clashes," said the captain, who declined to give his name, citing threats against Iraqi forces.
Al Qaeda in Iraq distributed leaflets in several cities in western Iraq on Sunday claiming that the organization had kidnapped two Marines.
"By the help of God, your brothers were able to capture two calves, who are called Marines, after they trapped them in an ambush," according to the statement, which went on to say, "They are in a place that no one but God knows."
In the statement, the group said it would kill the Marines in 24 hours if U.S. forces and the Iraqi government failed to release detained "Iraqi, Sunni women."
It was not immediately possible to independently verify the statement's authenticity. A spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, told the Associated Press: "I have not heard anything about any of our folks being taken. I would suspect that these are unfounded rumors, as that is what has happened in the past."
Another statement posted on a mosque in the nearby town of Rawa said U.S. forces "were slaughtered by Al Qaeda Organization." The U.S. military has reported no casualties in the assault, which involves more than 1,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops and has been dubbed Operation Iron Fist.
The military said its forces killed eight armed insurgents during the first day of fighting and about a dozen Sunday.
In one incident, insurgents in two vehicles drove to an area near a Marine position, got out and began to attack with small-arms fire, said Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, a spokesman for the Marines in Ramadi. The troops later discovered that the vehicles were rigged with explosives. Four insurgents were killed in a subsequent gun battle, and a fifth man surrendered to the Marines.
At a hospital in the border town of Qaim, Ali Rawi, a doctor, said 12 civilians were killed in an airstrike on Sadah at the start of a U.S. military operation. The report could not be independently verified.
The border area serves as a key crossing point for foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria. Hussain Ali Kamal, the head of intelligence for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, said in an interview Sunday that Syria had failed to keep promises to help stem the flow of insurgents into Iraq.
"A Syrian delegation came to Iraq two months ago," said Kamal, a deputy minister who represented the Interior Ministry in talks. "They promised to take steps, but so far we didn't get any response. There is no cooperation from the Syrian side in preventing the insurgents from coming into Iraq."
Kamal said the Iraqi government asked the U.S. military to carry out the operations in Sadah and other areas along the border because Iraq lacked the air power needed to strike at insurgent safe houses set up there.
"This is a war against gangs, and these are desert places," he said. "We cannot be 100 percent sure there is not infiltration."
Meanwhile, in the southern city of Karbala, armed men killed Lt. Ali Jubouri, an Iraqi army officer, as he was leaving his house for work early Sunday morning, according to a spokesman for the Karbala police command.
In Manthera, a village north of the holy city of Najaf, two people were killed and 16 wounded Saturday night when unknown armed men opened fire at a wedding ceremony, said Riyadh Abdul Karim of Najaf's Hakim Hospital.
And the U.S. military announced that Iraqi and American troops had discovered five caches of weapons in northern Baghdad on Friday.
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.