U.S. forces Wednesday launched another sweep through an insurgent stronghold in western Iraq, deploying more than 1,000 troops to flush out foreign fighters and Iraqi extremists from Haditha, a reservoir town where a third of Iraq’s electricity is produced.
Soldiers killed at least 10 insurgents in the operation’s first hours, after troops deployed by helicopter secured the Euphrates River town that was under insurgents’ control, the military said in a statement. Two Marines were reported wounded in the action, which began before dawn.
It was the second major offensive this month in the territory near the border with Syria, where U.S. officials contend foreign fighters have entered Iraq to confront the U.S.-led forces and the Iraqis working with them.
Meanwhile, Iraqi government sources said police arrested two key figures in the Al Qaeda network in Iraq. The announcements followed a report Tuesday on a website used by Islamic extremists that militant leader Abu Musab Zarqawi had been wounded. The Jordanian-born militant is suspected of spearheading much of the violence that has plagued Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in April 2003. The U.S. government has put a $25-million bounty on Zarqawi’s head.
The information wing of Zarqawi’s militant group warned on the same website that the U.S. offensive in western Al Anbar province was doomed to fail.
“America didn’t learn a good lesson from its loss in Qaim,” read the message from Al Qaeda Organization in the Land of Two Rivers, a reference to a sweep this month by U.S. forces in the territory bordering Syria. “They want to cover their defeat with this battle.”
The latest raid appeared to be aimed at capturing fighters who escaped the previous campaign, Operation Matador, which the military said was launched after insurgents took over Haditha hospital and used patients as human shields as they fired on Marines.
Operation New Market began after insurgents fired a mortar round at the city’s hydroelectric dam and began sniping at coalition forces, the military said.
Haditha lies on a major road between Syria and Iraq’s volatile Sunni Triangle. U.S. military sources say 125 insurgents and nine Marines died in the first offensive this month. But the pace of suicide bombings, sabotage and assassinations has shown no sign of abating.
More than 620 people -- including at least 59 U.S. troops -- have been killed in insurgent attacks in the last four weeks.
Radicals loyal to Zarqawi responded to an appeal Wednesday, posting words of prayer for his swift recovery as well as praise for the extremist. One supporter writing on the site, which has served as an Internet bulletin board for the insurgents, said Zarqawi had been spirited out of Iraq and was being treated at a safe location.
U.S. and Iraqi officials accuse Syria of tolerating the use of its territory as a conduit for foreign fighters entering Iraq.
“There are responsibilities of the Syrian government to hamper and prevent this flow of terrorists from coming across,” said Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister.
Insurgent attacks continued Wednesday with a suicide bombing against a convoy of Iraqi special forces and at least three roadside bombs targeting U.S. military forces. There were no fatalities among the troops, but the driver of a nearby car died in a fire ignited by the attack on the Iraqi convoy in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad.
Witnesses said the bomber was driving a white Brazilian-made Volkswagen Passat -- the same model used in the suicide bombing Tuesday outside a girls school in the capital. That attack killed six civilians.
The first of two roadside bombs Wednesday in the Saidiya district of Baghdad came at 7:15 a.m. One U.S. soldier was seriously wounded. In the second, about 9:30 p.m. in the same area, 19 people were injured.
Another explosive device that detonated in Dohuk, in the country’s north, killed an Iraqi policeman and wounded 10 others.
In Tuz Khurmatu, a U.S. soldier died of injuries sustained in a vehicle accident, the military reported. That brought to at least 59 the number of U.S. troops killed since April 28, when a new Iraqi government took power and insurgents launched a concerted campaign of sabotage and assault.
In Mosul, a hotbed of insurgent activity, gunmen killed a visiting police official outside the war college as students were arriving to take their final exams.
An Iraqi army captain, Ali Abdul Amir, was killed by gunmen outside his home in Khalis, north of Baghdad, the military said.
The government and the U.S. military said the two Zarqawi lieutenants were detained near Baqubah but in separate encounters.
Mullah Kamel Assawadi, who allegedly handled finances for insurgent training and the making of roadside bombs, was detained after trying to bribe his way past a checkpoint. The military said he had been operating out of the Sunni rebel stronghold of Samarra.
Police arrested Agha Umar, described as a senior figure in the militant network’s cell in Diyala province, the government said.
Iraqi officials also reported Wednesday the killing a week earlier of another senior Al Qaeda operative, Sabhan Ahmed Ramadan, near Mosul.
“The more of those who are in charge of terrorist cells and conducting operations to undermine the government that are taken off the streets, that certainly helps” in the campaign to weaken the insurgency, said Col. Bill Buckner, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition.