Saturday, November 5, 2005

BAGHDAD — About 3,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops backed by jets began a major offensive yesterday against an insurgent-held town near the Syrian border, seeking to dislodge al Qaeda and its allies and seal off a main route for foreign fighters entering the country.

U.S. officials describe the town of Husaybah as the key to controlling the volatile Euphrates River valley of western Iraq and dislodging al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian terrorism mastermind Abu Musab Zarqawi.

The U.S.-led operation includes about 1,000 Iraqi soldiers, and the offensive will serve as a major test of their capability to battle the insurgents — a capability considered essential to enabling Washington to draw down its 157,000-strong military presence.

Thunderous explosions shook Husaybah early yesterday as U.S. Marines and Iraqi scouts, recruited from pro-government tribes from the area, fought their way into western neighborhoods of the town, 200 miles northwest of Baghdad, residents said.

As fighting continued throughout the day, U.S. jets launched at least nine air strikes, according to the U.S. Marine Corps. The U.S. command said no casualties were reported among American or Iraqi forces.

However, the military said yesterday that three more U.S. troops had been killed elsewhere in Iraq. One soldier was killed Friday by small-arms fire south of Baghdad, and another died the same day when a vehicle in his patrol was hit by a mine near Habaniyah, 50 miles west of the capital. The third soldier was killed yesterday in a traffic accident in southern Iraq.

Those deaths raised to at least 2,045 the number U.S. service members who have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Five Iraqi police were killed and three wounded when a roadside bomb exploded yesterday in northern Baghdad, hospital officials said, and police said that 11 members of a Kurdish Shi’ite family, including an infant, were killed and three wounded when gunmen sprayed their minibus with automatic weapons’ fire northeast of Baghdad,.

The relatives were returning to their home in the Baghdad area after visiting a family cemetery near Balad Ruz, about 50 miles away. Shi’ite Muslims traditionally pay their respects to their dead during the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan and ends for most Shi’ites today.

The motive for the attack was not clear, but tensions between Shi’ites and Sunnis have been on the rise in the area, with extremists from each community targeting the other.

U.S. commanders said they hope the Husaybah offensive, code-named “Operation Steel Curtain,” will restore control of western Anbar province ahead of the parliamentary election Dec. 15 and enable Sunni Arabs there to vote.

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