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Marines Push Into Rebel Areas on Day 3 of Offensive in West Iraq

Times Staff Writer

U.S. Marines advanced farther into insurgent strongholds near the border with Syria in western Iraq on Tuesday, the third day of a major assault in which the military says it has killed more than 100 fighters and discovered large weapons caches.

Eight suspects were reported slain in sporadic attacks Tuesday throughout the Ramana area, a ribbon of agricultural villages in Al Anbar province, a largely Sunni Muslim region.

Three Americans have been killed, 25 have been wounded and 110 insurgents have died in the fighting that began Sunday, the Marine Corps said. More than 1,000 troops are taking part in the offensive, which is aimed at capturing or killing rebel recruits from western Iraq and foreign fighters who cross the border here.

In New Ubaydi, one of the towns where Marines struggled for hours Monday to cross to the north side of the Euphrates River, a Cobra attack helicopter fired machine-gun blasts at several suspects speeding away in a car, killing the occupants. Pilots used a Hellfire missile against another suspect vehicle that had ducked under a gas station awning. It burned for hours after the strike.

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Just before midnight Monday, two suicide car bombers ambushed a U.S. convoy attempting to salvage a tank that had been disabled by a mine in the village of Karabilah, also on the river’s south side, military officials said. A tank gunner demolished one of the vehicles, but the other car exploded near a Humvee, injuring four Marines, one seriously.

The assault on this strip of well-irrigated towns is the first in months by the Marines, who have faced manpower constraints and other priorities in western Iraq, a hotbed of the Sunni-led insurgency.

The push to the north side of the Euphrates was delayed a day because Army bridge builders encountered difficulties spanning the river. Until the bridge’s completion Monday, there had been no easy way for the U.S. troops to move heavy armored vehicles across the Euphrates into the Ramana area.

Military officials think that foreign fighters have been using the region as a sanctuary on their way from the porous Syrian border to cities such as Mosul, Ramadi and Baghdad, where they have carried out kidnappings, assassinations and suicide bombings aimed at destabilizing Iraq’s nascent government.

Some U.S. commanders believe the area contains insurgent training camps and high-ranking members of the Iraq arm of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, including its leader, Abu Musab Zarqawi. As of early today, no camps or Al Qaeda leaders had been found.

The Marines spent most of Tuesday conducting house-to-house searches in several villages and said they had found two vehicle bombs, dozens of mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 rifles and at least one bomb vest.

Troops arrested 10 suspected insurgents Tuesday. A Los Angeles Times reporter traveling with members of the 2nd Marine Division saw six suspects sitting in the dust wearing plastic handcuffs and blindfolds. All had been found with weapons or bomb-making equipment, the Marines said.

Troops also said they fired on a taxicab Tuesday morning after it failed to stop at a checkpoint. However, the occupants apparently were civilians fleeing New Ubaydi. The driver was killed and a female passenger and her child were injured.

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“We were just sick to death when that lady got out of the car with her baby,” said a Marine, who declined to identify himself.

Marines said another passenger, who was unhurt, told them that insurgents had taken hold of the town and were threatening to kill any men who did not fight the Americans. The woman urged the Marines to reenter New Ubaydi to fight the guerrillas, the troops said.

The insurgent attacks in New Ubaydi have surprised the Marines, who thought that most of the rebels were on the north side of the river. Troops who pursued fighters in the town Sunday found well-fortified positions and heavily armed men. Mortar plates had been screwed onto rooftops and sandbag barriers surrounded some homes. Marines also found a number of large weapons caches.

Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Regimental Combat Team 2, which is staging the operation, said his forces would continue to pursue their original goal: clearing insurgents from towns on the north side.

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“The enemy hasn’t gone away,” Davis said. “The key here is not to get hasty. We’re going to go from house to house, sifting the chaff from the wheat. The enemy is adaptive. He’s not stupid, and he’s shown a willingness to engage.”

Another officer in the area, however, said he thought many insurgents might have fled.

“They’ve had enough time, they’ve had enough warning to flee,” said Capt. Tom Sibley, a Marine intelligence officer. “They usually know better than to step in front of the fist.”

Marines said U.S. aircraft and remote-controlled spy drones had seen relatively little movement away from the area, an indication that many insurgents might still be in hiding.

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But Sibley said he suspected that delays Sunday had allowed some insurgents to escape into Syria by boat or by climbing into the high desert above the river valley.

“However many escaped, we’re teaching them that this is not a safe place for them,” Sibley said. “Every place where they feel confident, we need to take that away. Every place they feel safe, that’s where we need to kill them.”

Commanders planned more attacks today, sweeping the area with Humvees, tracked personnel carriers and tanks.

Despite scattered fighting Tuesday, the outskirts of the Ramana region appeared placid. Young boys could be seen tending sheep in fields of grass and wheat. Families sat in front of stone houses sipping small cups of tea and smoking cigarettes.

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Men wearing traditional robes and headdresses stood in yards and watched U.S. convoys clatter past with food, water and ammunition.

The Marines used much of the day to fortify their positions and identify targets. A few mortar rounds thundered in the distance, but few troops seemed to notice.

As night fell, the Marines ate their packaged meals and spread out sleeping bags amid armored vehicles and the ruins of pulverized homes. They slept with their M-16s within arm’s reach.


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