- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

OBEIDI, Iraq — The U.S. military wrapped up a major offensive in a remote desert region near the Syrian border yesterday, saying it had cleaned out the insurgent haven and killed more than 125 militants during the weeklong campaign against followers of Iraq’s most-wanted terrorist, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

Nine U.S. Marines were killed and 40 injured during Operation Matador — one of the largest American campaigns since militants were driven from Fallujah six months ago. The number of civilian casualties was not immediately known.

American troops backed by warplanes and helicopter gunships swept through desert outposts along ancient smuggling routes, believed to be staging areas for foreign fighters who slip over the border and collect weapons to launch deadly attacks in Iraq’s major cities.

More than 1,000 Marines, soldiers and sailors participated in the operation, killing more than 125 insurgents, wounding many others and detaining 39 “of intelligence value,” the military said.

Numerous weapons caches containing machine guns, mortar rounds and rockets were discovered. Six car bombs and material for making other improvised explosive devises were also found, the statement said.

The military said the operation confirmed its intelligence about the region north of the Euphrates River, including the existence of “cave complexes” used by insurgents.

The U.S. military said the seven-day operation “neutralized” an insurgent sanctuary. But in Qaim, the town where the campaign began, masked fighters armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades remained in plain sight Friday, setting up checkpoints and vowing to defend the town if U.S. forces return.

The U.S. assault took place during a surge of militant attacks that have killed at least 440 persons in just over two weeks since Iraq’s first democratically elected government was announced.

At least 13 more Iraqis were killed yesterday in a series of ambushes and bombings. They included Jassim Mohammed Ghani, a director-general in the Iraqi Foreign Ministry slain in a drive-by shooting outside his Baghdad home last night, police said.

The U.S. offensive began May 7 in Qaim, 200 miles northwest of Baghdad on the southern bank of the Euphrates. American intelligence indicated insurgents had massed north of the waterway, according to reporters embedded with the assault. But as soldiers built a pontoon bridge, they started taking mortar fire from nearby Obeidi.

When U.S. forces entered the village last Sunday, they confronted well-equipped fighters — some with body armor — fighting from rooftops, basements and sandbagged bunkers positioned in front of some homes. U.S. forces pounded the area with air strikes and artillery barrages and some 70 insurgents were killed in the first 24 hours of the operation alone.

Pentagon officials conceded, however, that the insurgents were better trained and equipped than previously thought.

The next day, U.S. forces crossed the Euphrates and pushed along the winding river to the border, meeting little resistance, the military said.

Periodic air strikes continued into Friday, including one that killed 12 insurgents manning a checkpoint east of Husaybah. Another air strike Friday targeted a suspected terrorist safe house in nearby Karabilah.

But insurgents also inflicted a toll, killing six Marines in one squad Wednesday when their troop transporter hit a bomb near Karabilah.

A long column of U.S. troops, backed by tanks and helicopters, rolled back across the river yesterday and surrounded Obeidi. Military spokesman Capt. Jeffrey Pool said Marines conducted a “cordon and search” operation in the area, but Obeidi was not hit by air or artillery strikes yesterday.

Rival groups of insurgents also were fighting among themselves around Qaim, Capt. Pool said. Residents acknowledged fighting in Qaim and surrounding villages began before the U.S. offensive, characterizing it as tribal clashes.

Thousands fled the area during the offensive, pitching tents along sand-blown desert highways or seeking shelter in schools and mosques in nearby towns.

The military denied resident reports that they had been without water and electricity in some areas since the offensive began.

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