U.S. and Iraqi troops launched a fresh attack Monday against an insurgent stronghold near the Syrian border despite calls by Sunni Arab leaders to halt such operations to encourage a big turnout in next month’s election. The U.S. command said about 50 insurgents were killed.
Two U.S. Marines were killed and at least seven were wounded in the fighting in the border town of Obeidi, according to a New York Times reporter is embedded with the Marines. A Marine spokesman told The Associated Press that he cannot report casualties until 24 hours after they occur.
Early Tuesday, a car bomb exploded near a restaurant in eastern Baghdad where police were having breakfast, killing four people and wounding seven, police Capt. Haider Ibrahim said. Two officers were among the dead, he said.
In Baghdad on Monday, a car bomb exploded near the main gate to the heavily guarded Green Zone, killing two South Africans and wounding three other people. The victims worked for State Department security contractor DynCorp International, the U.S. Embassy said.
The U.S.-Iraqi attack against Obeidi was the latest stage of an offensive to clear al-Qaida-led insurgents from a string of towns and cities in the Euphrates River valley near the border with Syria and seal off a major infiltration route for foreign fighters sneaking into Iraq.
“Approximately 50 insurgents are estimated to have been killed in sporadic but heavy fighting,” a U.S. statement said. Most of the insurgents died in at least five U.S. airstrikes.
Earlier this month, U.S. and Iraqi forces overran two other towns in the area — Husaybah and Karabilah. Unlike in previous sweeps in the area, the Americans and their Iraqi allies plan to establish a long-term presence to prevent insurgents from returning.
U.S. officials have said the Euphrates Valley campaign is also aimed at encouraging Sunni Arabs there to vote in the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections without fear of insurgent reprisals. The Bush administration hopes that a successful election with strong Sunni Arab participation will encourage many in that community to abandon the insurgency.
That in turn would make it possible for U.S. and other international troops to begin heading home next year. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said Monday in Vienna, Austria, that talks on a withdrawal schedule could begin late next year.
However, major Sunni Arab politicians and religious leaders complain that military operations will discourage voter turnout. On Monday, Iraq’s Sunni vice president added his voice to calls for halting military operations, especially in western Iraq and in a province around the city of Baqouba.
“These military operations have gone too far and have a negative impact on the country’s politics,” Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer told Al-Arabiya television.
Hundreds of Sunni Arabs marched Monday through the streets of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, to protest Iraqi security raids in the surrounding province last weekend. More than 300 people, mostly Sunni Arabs, were arrested, officials said.
Members of the crowd carried banners denouncing the arrests of Sunni Arabs and chanted, “No to America, no to Britain.”
Most Sunni Arabs boycotted the Jan. 30 elections, enabling the majority Shiites and their Kurdish allies to dominate the current parliament. Many Sunni politicians now consider the boycott a mistake and have urged fellow Sunnis to vote next month, although hard-liners in the insurgency and among the Sunni clergy remain opposed.
The Baghdad blast occurred about 100 yards north of the main gate to the Green Zone, headquarters of the Iraqi government and the U.S. mission. The blast, which targeted the security convoy as it left the Green Zone, was followed by small arms fire which echoed through the heart of the capital.
Two Apache attack helicopters flew over the scene as thick black smoke cleared.
Elsewhere, a roadside bomb detonated Monday in the western city of Ramadi, missing an American patrol but destroying two buses and killing five civilians, police said. Twenty others were wounded, according to police.
With casualties rising and elections just a month away, U.S. and other countries have stepped up diplomatic efforts to try to reconcile Iraq’s disparate factions. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov have all visit Baghdad during the past five days to encourage successful elections.
In Cairo, Egypt, Arab League officials said 100 prominent Iraqis have been invited to a weekend meeting there to pave the way for a full-blown conference, probably to be held early next year in Iraq. The preliminary meeting is not expected to include representatives of insurgent groups or Saddam Hussein loyalists.