Tuesday, October 12, 2004

BAGHDAD — U.S. troops went on the offensive from the gates of Baghdad to the Syrian border yesterday, pounding Sunni Muslim insurgent positions from the air and supporting Iraqi soldiers in raids on mosques suspected of harboring extremists.

American and Iraqi forces launched the operations ahead of Ramadan, expected to start at week’s end, in an apparent attempt at preventing a repeat of the insurgent violence that took place at the start of last year’s Muslim holy month.

Clashes broke out in a string of militant strongholds from Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, northward along the Euphrates Valley to the Syrian border town of Qaim — all major conflict areas.

Some of the sharpest exchanges took place in Hit, 90 miles northwest of Baghdad, where residents and hospital officials said U.S. aircraft attacked two sites, killing two persons and wounding five. The U.S. command had no comment.

U.S. helicopters fired on a mosque in Hit on Monday and set it ablaze after the military said insurgents opened fire on Marines from the sanctuary. Scattered clashes were reported overnight, killing at least two Iraqis and wounding 15, hospital officials said.

Insurgents attacked an Iraqi national guard outpost east of Qaim yesterday, the U.S. military said. The local hospital reported 15 to 20 people were killed.

Seventy miles west of Baghdad, Iraqi troops backed by U.S. soldiers and Marines raided seven mosques in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, arresting a prominent member of a clerical association and three other persons. They also seized bomb-making materials and “insurgent propaganda” in the mosques, U.S. officials said.

Angry Ramadi residents accused the Americans of breaking down doors and violating the sanctity of mosques.

“This cowboy behavior cannot be accepted,” said cleric Abdullah Abu Omar. “The Americans seem to have lost their senses and have gone out of control.”

However, the raids followed a surge in insurgent attacks in Ramadi, and the U.S. command accused the militants of violating the sanctity of the mosques by using them for military purposes. Marine spokesman Maj. Francis Piccoli said U.S. troops provided backup for the Iraqi soldiers, but did not enter the mosques.

In Fallujah, the focal point for Sunni resistance, residents reported explosions and clashes on the eastern edge of the city yesterday afternoon. At least five persons were killed and four wounded in the blasts, according to Fallujah General Hospital. The victims were reportedly traveling on a highway outside the city when they came under fire.

The renewed activity around Fallujah followed a pair of pre-dawn air strikes, which the U.S. command said targeted hide-outs and meeting places of the Tawhid and Jihad terrorist group responsible for numerous kidnappings and beheadings.

One of the air strikes flattened a well-known Fallujah restaurant and the other destroyed a building in another part of the city. Five persons were killed and two were wounded in the two attacks, hospital officials reported.

Yesterday’s air strikes in Fallujah were the first in four days and occurred as Iraqi officials were in talks with city representatives to restore government control, which disintegrated after the Marines ended a three-week siege in late April.

Since then, the city has fallen under the control of hard-line Islamist clerics and their armed followers, who defended Fallujah against the Marines. Both sides have said they were close to an agreement.

Yesterday, hundreds of Sheik al-Sadr’s fighters from his Mahdi’s Army lined up at police stations for the second consecutive day to hand in weapons in return for cash. Some of the weapons appeared to be old, and it seemed unlikely that the Mahdi’s Army would surrender all its arms.

Associated Press correspondent Fisnik Abrashi contributed to this report from Qaim.

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