US launches major offensive as violence continues

ABOUT 1,000 US Marines, sailors and soldiers encircled the Iraqi city of Haditha in the troubled Anbar province early yesterday, launching the second major anti-insurgent operation in this vast western region in less than a month.

The offensives are aimed at uprooting insurgents who have killed more than 620 people since a new Iraqi government was announced on April 28.

Many of those insurgents are thought to be foreign fighters who have slipped across the border from Syria.

Syria is under intense pressure to stop foreign fighters from entering Iraq across their porous 612 kilometre-long border.

Both the US and Iraq, at their highest leadership levels, have been demanding Syria do more. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said last week that he would soon visit Syria for talks with officials about repeated border infiltration.

“We believe there are many infiltrators, many terrorists, that are stepping through the borders carrying out terrorist attacks against innocent Iraqis,” Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said at a joint news conference with visiting Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini.

Earlier this month, American forces conducted a week-long operation in the city of Qaim and other Iraqi towns near the Syrian border aimed at rooting out militants allied to Jordanian-born terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and destroying their smuggling routes into Syria. At least 125 militants were killed in that operation, along with nine US Marines, the military said.

A web statement in the name of al-Zarqawi’s group, al-Qaida in Iraq, said the terrorist mastermind has been wounded. But US officials cautioned they did not know if the posting was authentic, and privately said the information also may have been designed to purposely mislead.

Four US soldiers were killed on Tuesday, pushing the number of US troops killed in four days to 14, part of a surge in attacks that have also killed about 60 Iraqis.

In Baghdad’s southern neighbourhood of Dora, a suicide car bomber blew himself up yesterday but missed a US military convoy that was passing in the area, police Captain Firas Ghaiti said. The attack left one civilian dead and four wounded, he added.

Sunni and Shi’ite clerics and politicians have been intensifying efforts to find a way out of a sectarian crisis that threatens a civil war.

Sunnis opposed to the new government are thought to make up the insurgency’s core, and some Sunni extremists have been attacking Shi’ites.

About 3,000 Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim protesters staged a noisy demonstration in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, to denounce recent comments made by a prominent Sunni leader who accused a Shi’ite militia of killing Sunni clerics.

In Haditha, helicopters swept down near palm tree groves dropping off Marines who blocked off one side of the town, while other troops on foot and in armoured vehicles established checkpoints and moved towards the centre of the city, 225 kilometres north-west of Baghdad. US warplanes circled overhead.

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