- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

BAGHDAD — Scores of terrified Iraqis fled a besieged town yesterday, waving white flags and hauling their belongings to escape a second day of fighting between U.S. Marines and al Qaeda militants along the Syrian border as U.S. and Iraqi troops battled insurgents house to house, the U.S. military said.

Brig. Gen. Donald Alston, a U.S. military spokesman, told reporters in Baghdad that none of the 3,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops had been killed since the assault began Saturday in Husaybah, 200 miles northwest of the capital.

“We are having contact with the enemy, but we are not meeting stiff resistance,” Gen. Alston said. “They are using small-arms fire.”

The Marines said last night that American jets struck at least 10 targets in Husaybah, a market town along the Euphrates River valley that used to have a population of about 30,000.

At least 17 insurgents had been confirmed killed since the assault began, but “many more are suspected of being killed,” a formal statement said.

The Marines added that the U.S.-Iraqi force was taking fire from insurgents holed up in homes, mosques and schools.

Residents said by satellite phone that coalition forces warned people by loudspeakers to leave on foot because troops would fire on vehicles.

“I left everything behind — my car, my house,” said Ahmed Mukhlef, 35, a teacher who fled Husaybah with his wife and two children while carrying a white bedsheet tied to a stick. “I don’t care if my house is bombed or looted, as long as I have my kids and wife safe with me.”

Marines said about 450 people had taken refuge in a vacant housing area in Husaybah under the control of Iraqi forces. Others were thought to have fled to relatives in nearby towns and villages in the predominantly Sunni Arab area of Anbar province.

U.S. officials have described Husaybah as a stronghold of al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian extremist Abu Musab Zarqawi, and a major way station used to smuggle foreign fighters, weapons and ammunition from Syria down the Euphrates River valley to Baghdad and other cities.

Several people identified as al Qaeda in Iraq officials have been killed in recent air strikes in the Husaybah area, the U.S. military has said. Most were described as “facilitators” who helped smuggle would-be suicide bombers from Syria.

The Americans hope the operation will help restore security in the area so the Sunni Arab population can take part in Dec. 15 national parliamentary elections.

If the Sunnis win a significant number of seats in the new parliament, the Americans hope that will persuade more members of the minority to lay down their arms and join the political process, enabling U.S. and other international troops to begin withdrawing next year.

“The insurgents are throwing everything they have at the Iraqi people and coalition forces in an effort to derail Iraq’s democratic reforms,” Gen. Alston said.

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