- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

BAGHDAD — American troops backed by helicopters and warplanes launched a major offensive against followers of Iraq’s most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab Zarqawi, in a desert area near the Syrian border, leaving as many as 100 militants dead, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Marines, sailors and soldiers from Regimental Combat Team 2, 2nd Marine Division, were conducting the offensive in an area north of the Euphrates River, in the Al Jazirah Desert, a known smuggling route and sanctuary for foreign insurgents, the U.S. military said.

The brief statement did not specify when the operation began, how many troops were involved, or whether there had been any American casualties. But U.S. military spokesmen later said that the offensive started on Saturday and that it had killed as many as 100 militants. The military also reported that two U.S. Marines were killed in the area on Sunday and one yesterday.

A senior U.S. military official said the operation is targeting a group of Zarqawi followers thought to be operating in the area. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Zarqawi, a Jordanian, is leader of the terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq. He has declared allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network and is tied to many bombings and kidnappings since the U.S.-led invasion removed dictator Saddam Hussein from power two years ago.

Meanwhile, militants claimed in a Web posting that they took a Japanese man hostage after ambushing a group of foreigners and Iraqi troops in western Iraq.

The Ansar al-Sunnah Army identified the Japanese hostage as Akihito Saito, 44, and posted a photocopy of his passport, including his picture, on the group’s Web site.

The group said Mr. Saito was seized after Ansar al-Sunnah fighters ambushed a convoy of five foreign contractors, protected by 12 members of the Iraqi security forces. It said all were killed in the fight except for Mr. Saito, who was “severely injured.”

One of the posted ID cards belonging to Mr. Saito identified him as a security manager of Hart GMSSCO, a British-based security firm. Hart executive Simon Falkner said in London that there was an ambush with casualties Sunday night involving Hart personnel, but would not confirm whether Mr. Saito was an employee and whether he had been seized.

The group said it ambushed the convoy near Hit, west of Baghdad, and said a fierce battle erupted between the fighters and those in the convoy. Hit is about 80 miles from where U.S. forces launched the major offensive against militants near the Syrian border. It was not known whether the offensive had any connection to the ambush.

Six bodies also were found yesterday in Markab al-Tair village, near the Syrian frontier, police Col. Wathiq Mohammed said. He identified them as a senior Iraqi border policeman and five of his relatives.

The military has stepped up raids on suspected hide-outs across the country, including near the Syrian border, where U.S. and Iraqi officials say foreign militants are entering the country to attack coalition forces.

The Chicago Tribune reported that more than 1,000 U.S. troops supported by fighter jets and helicopter gunships raided villages Sunday in and around Obeidi, about 185 miles west of Baghdad, in an operation expected to last several days.

The report, by a journalist embedded with the U.S. forces, said the offensive “was seeking to uproot a persistent insurgency in an area that American intelligence indicated has become a haven for foreign fighters flowing in from Syria.”

The crackdown came amid insurgent violence that has killed more than 310 people since April 28, when most of the new Iraqi government was announced. At least nine American servicemen were killed this weekend.

In Baghdad, violence continued yesterday with three Iraqis killed in a suicide car bombing at a police checkpoint at a busy Baghdad intersection, said police Maj. Mousa Abdul Karim.

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