- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

QAIM, Iraq — About 1,000 U.S. troops backed by attack helicopters swarmed into a tiny Iraqi village near the Syrian border yesterday in a new offensive aimed at rooting out fighters from the country’s most feared militant group, the military said.

The assault, the fourth major sweep since May in the border region, targeted the village of Sadah, which the military said had come under militant control and was a base for foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria.

Elsewhere, two U.S. soldiers were killed by explosions while on patrols yesterday — one in Baghdad and another in Beiji, 155 miles north of the capital, the military said.

Gunmen also kidnapped the brother of Iraq’s interior minister as he drove home yesterday in Baghdad, an hour after the son of a brigadier general was abducted in the town of Taji, north of the capital, the ministry said.

The Sadah sweep, named Operation Iron Fist, was aimed at breaking the militants’ hold on the town and eliminating a way station for foreign fighters entering from Syria and to improve security before Iraq’s Oct. 15 referendum on a new constitution, the military said.

Sunni insurgents have vowed to derail the vote and have launched a surge of violence that has killed at least 200 people — including 15 U.S. service members — in the past six days.

U.S. warplanes and helicopters launched strikes on targets in Sadah, sending plumes of smoke into the sky, according to residents contacted by the Associated Press.

The force — made up mostly of Marines, but also with soldiers and sailors — rolled into the village in the morning, and gunfire was heard, said a correspondent for CNN embedded with the troops. Helicopters fired on three suspicious vehicles along the way. Two turned out to be carrying suicide bombers. The third was being loaded with weapons, CNN reported.

Sadah is a village of about 2,000 people on the banks of the Euphrates River about eight miles from the Syrian border in Iraq’s western province of Anbar. The isolated community has one main road and about 200 houses scattered over a rural area.

Marines carried out two major operations in the same region, around the main town of Qaim, in May, killing 125 insurgents in the first campaign, Operation Matador, and about 50 in the second, Operation Spear in mid-June in the town of Karabilah.

Nine Marines were killed in those actions, designed to scatter and eradicate insurgents using the road from Damascus to Baghdad.

In September, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops fought through the city of Tal Afar in northwest Iraq, also near the border, killing more than 150 insurgents and capturing more than 300, according to Iraqi military figures.

Two weeks after that offensive, a female suicide bomber infiltrated the city and set off a blast that killed six Iraqi army recruits on Wednesday — illustrating the difficulty of completely putting down militants.

At least 1,935 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003.

Many Sunni Arabs oppose the new constitution, saying it would give Kurds living in the north and majority Shi’ites in the south too much independence and control over Iraq’s oil wealth and leave Sunnis isolated in central and western Iraq.

Al Qaeda in Iraq has declared “all-out war” on Shi’ites, and since a Shi’ite-majority government took power in Iraq on April 28, suicide bombers have killed at least 1,345 persons, according to an AP count.

Also yesterday, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country’s largest Sunni political group, condemned bombings that killed more than 110 people in Balad and Hillah last week, saying “such sinful acts only serve the schemes of the occupiers” by widening the gap between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites. The party urged Iraqis “to stop the violence and solve their problems by words, not weapons.”

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