U.S. and Iraqi troops battled insurgents house to house Monday, the third day of an assault against al-Qaida-led insurgents in a town near the Syrian border. The U.S. command reported the first American death in the operation, and four U.S. soldiers were killed when a suicide car bomber attacked their checkpoint south of Baghdad.
The latest fighting came as the military said five U.S. members of an elite Army unit have been charged with kicking and punching detainees in Iraq. The charges were issued Saturday against five soldiers from the 75th Ranger Regiment in connection with a Sept. 7 incident “in which three detainees were allegedly punched and kicked while awaiting movement to a detention facility,” the U.S. military said in a statement.
The soldiers who were killed Monday in the attack south of Baghdad were assigned to the Army’s Task Force Baghdad, which is responsible for security in the capital and the surrounding area. But the statement did not specify where the attack occurred. Names of the soldiers also were withheld pending notification of their families.
In Baghdad, a leading Sunni Arab politician, Adnan al-Dulaimi, called for a halt to U.S. and Iraqi military operations against cities in order to encourage disaffected Sunnis to join the political process and vote in national elections next month.
Al-Qaida in Iraq, meanwhile, warned the Iraqi government Monday to halt the offensive against Husaybah, a market town along the Euphrates River about 200 miles northwest of Baghdad, within 24 hours or see “the earth ... shake beneath their feet.”
“Let them know that the price will be very heavy,” al-Qaida said in a statement posted on an Islamist Web site. Its authenticity could not be confirmed.
The U.S. commander of the joint force, Col. Stephen W. Davis, said that by late Sunday, his troops had moved “about halfway” through Husaybah, a market town along the Euphrates River about 200 miles northwest of Baghdad.
200 detained since start of assault
At least 36 insurgents have been killed since the assault began Saturday, and about 200 men have been detained, Davis told The Associated Press by telephone. He did not give a breakdown of nationalities of the detainees. Many were expected to be from a pro-insurgent Iraqi tribe.
A Marine was killed by small arms fire in Husaybah on Sunday, the military said. The New York Times, which has a journalist embedded with the U.S. forces, reported that three Marines were also wounded Sunday.
Elsewhere, an American soldier was killed Sunday by a roadside bomb near Tikrit, the U.S. command said. The latest deaths raised to at least 2,051 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in 2003, according to an AP count.
Five people, including a woman, were killed and four were wounded Monday in east Baghdad when a mortar shell exploded near a Turkomen club, police said. It was unclear if the club was the target.
A roadside bomb killed six policemen and three civilians in the capital’s southern Dora neighborhood, an insurgent stronghold, said Mohanad Jawad, an official at Yarmouk Hospital. Insurgents have targeted policemen and soldiers because they consider them agents for foreign occupation troops.
In Mosul, three gunmen burst into an Internet cafe and killed a journalist from the Turkomen minority, Ahmed Hussein al-Maliki, police said. The motive was unclear but journalists have been targeted in Mosul in the past.
Town is an al-Qaida stronghold
U.S. officials have described Husaybah, which used to have a population of about 30,000, as a stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq, which is led by Jordanian extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Husaybah is a main entry point for foreign fighters, weapons and ammunition entering from Syria. From Husaybah, the fighters head down the Euphrates valley to Baghdad and other cities.
CNN, which also had a reporter accompanying the Husaybah offensive, said at least one Iraqi soldier has been wounded and as many as 80 insurgents have died in the fighting. Marine officers said the higher insurgent casualty figure was an estimate because many militants had died in U.S. airstrikes and their bodies have not been recovered.
CNN reported Monday that the house-to-house battles were continuing, with ground forces supported by Humvees and tanks working through the narrow streets of the bleak desert town.
‘Kill the insurgents’
“We are meeting quite a bit of resistance here in Husaybah but the offensive is going well,” Capt. Conlon Carabine told the network. “Our strategy is basically to kill the insurgents when we come across them.”
Carabine said U.S. and Iraqi forces plan to establish a long-term presence in the town once the insurgents are routed. “Once we clear this town, we’re going to stay in this town,” he said. “We’re not going to leave this population.”
Davis said the militants were putting up a tough fight because “this area is near and dear to the insurgents, particularly the foreign fighters” because it is so close to the Syrian border.
“This has been the first stop for foreign fighters, and this is strategic ground for them,” he said.
The U.S.-led assault includes about 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and will serve as a major test of the fledgling army’s capability to battle insurgents — seen as essential to enabling the Bush administration to draw down its 157,000-strong military presence.
Also Monday, the U.S. military announced that it had killed two regional al-Qaida in Iraq leaders operating in the Husaybah area during Oct. 31 airstrikes that destroyed several insurgent “safe houses” near the towns of Karabilah and Obeidi.
It identified one of them as Abu Omar, who helped smuggle foreign insurgents into the region and stage deadly roadside bomb attacks against Iraqi and U.S. forces. The other militant was identified as Abu Hamza, who commanded several al-Qaida cells and helped launch attacks against coalition forces, including ones based at U.S. Camp Gannon in the Husaybah area, the military said.
Fighting for Dec. 15 elections
The Americans hope the Husaybah operation, codenamed “Operation Steel Curtain,” will help restore enough security in the area so the Sunni Arab population can participate in Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
If the Sunnis win a significant number of seats, Washington hopes that will persuade more members of the minority to lay down their arms and join the political process, enabling U.S. and other international troops to begin withdrawing next year.
However, a protracted battle in Husaybah with civilian casualties risks a backlash in the Sunni Arab community, which provides most of the insurgents. Some Sunni politicians fear military operations will further alienate fellow Sunni Arabs.