U.S. troops pushed through streets sown with bombs Tuesday in their biggest operation this year in western Iraq. The Americans are seeking to retake three Euphrates River towns from al Qaeda insurgents, and at least five U.S. service members have been killed in recent fighting in the area.
Operation River Gate, launched at the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, was the second U.S. offensive in a week in Anbar province, near the Syrian border. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent group led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, had called for intensified attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces during the month.
Late Monday and early Tuesday, about 2,500 U.S. troops along with Iraqi forces began the operation with an air assault on Haditha, Haqlaniyah and Parwana, about 140 miles northwest of Baghdad.
Blasts from U.S. warplanes and helicopters lit up the sky during the fighting, aimed at keeping Sunni Muslim-led insurgents from intensifying their campaign of violence ahead of an Oct. 15 referendum on Iraq's proposed constitution. As with the earlier U.S. offensive, it appeared many fighters may have escaped beforehand.
A roadside bomb in Haqlaniyah on Monday killed three U.S. service members, apparently among the first troops to arrive for Operation River Gate. In the earlier offensive, a bomb killed a Marine in Karabilah. In addition, a soldier was fatally shot in the town of Taqaddum.
On the political front, U.S. and U.N. officials were trying to avert a Sunni Arab boycott of the referendum. Officials met with Shiite Arab and Kurdish leaders to persuade them to reverse a change to the voting rules made by the Shiite-led government. The change stipulates that defeating the constitution would take a "no" vote by two-thirds of registered voters in three provinces. Previously, defeat would have taken a no vote by two-thirds of voters turning out in three provinces.