Using car bombs and a man with explosives strapped to his body, insurgents killed more than 60 people in three Iraqi cities today, police said.
The attacks occurred in northern and central Iraq, as hundreds of US Marines pushed through a lawless region of western Iraq near the Syrian border in a military offensive aimed at supporters of the country’s most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
On Tuesday, the more than 1,000 US Marines, soldiers and sailors in Operation Matador battled past well-armed militants who had fought from basements, rooftops and sandbag bunkers.
Insurgents also kidnapped the region’s provincial governor as a bargaining chip.
As many as 100 insurgents were killed in the first 48 hours of the offensive, which began late on Saturday night, as US troops cleared villages along the meandering Euphrates River, then crossed in rafts and on a pontoon bridge, the US command said.
Many of the dead remained trapped under rubble after attack planes and helicopter gunships pounded their hideouts.
At least three Marines were reported killed and 20 wounded during the first three days of the offensive – the biggest US operation since Fallujah was taken from extremists six months ago.
The operation was launched after US intelligence showed al-Zarqawi followers had taken refuge in the remote desert region – a haven for smugglers and insurgent suppliers. The fighters were believed to have fled to Anbar Province after losses in Iraqi cities.
In one battle in Obeidi, an Iraqi town near the Syrian border, foreign fighters laid down in a narrow crawl space under a one-storey house and fired their machine guns up through the concrete floor, said a Washington Post journalist embedded with the US Marines.
As Marines tried to rescue a fallen comrade, the insurgent gunfire repeatedly drove them back, the reporter said.
In the end, it took five Marine assaults, grenades, a tank, a rocket launcher and bombs dropped by a US warplane to kill the insurgents by Monday morning, the reporter said.
The Marines got their fallen man, suffering one more dead and at least five wounded in the process, the journalist said in an article in Wednesday’s Washington Post.
“They came here to die,” it quoted Sgt. Chuck Hurley, one of the US soldiers, as saying. “They were willing to stay in place and die with no hope. All they wanted was to take us with them.”
Hundreds of miles to the east, insurgents killed 61 people and wounded 124 in five separate bombings in Hawija, Tikrit and Baghdad.
In Hawija, a small city 150 miles north of Baghdad, a man with explosives hidden under his clothes set them off while standing in a line of about 150 men waiting outside a police and army recruitment, killing 30 people and wounding 35, said police Major Sarhad Qadir.
“I was standing near the centre and all of a sudden it turned into a scene of dead bodies and pools of blood,” said police Sgt. Khalaf Abbas. “Windows were blown out in nearby houses, leaving the street covered by glass.”
In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, 80 miles north of Baghdad, a suicide car bomb exploded in a small market near a police station, killing at least 27 people and wounding 75, said police Capt. Hakim al-Azawi and Nadim Mawloud, an official at Tikrit General Hospital.
When heavy security in the area prevented the attacker from reaching the police station, he swerved into a crowd of people at the market, many of them day labourers who had travelled to Tikrit from poor areas to work local construction sites, police said.
In Baghdad, three car bombs exploded today, killing four people and wounding 14, police said.
The worst blast occurred in the southern neighbourhood of Dora near a police station, killing three civilians and wounding nine, said police Col. Salam Alak.
In Yarmouk, an area of west Baghdad, a suicide car bomb targeting a police patrol exploded in Jordan Square, killing a woman civilian and wounding three policeman, said police Lt. Col. Kadhim Abbas.
In New Baghdad, an eastern area of the capital, a car bomb exploded near al-Darweesh bakery about 100 yards from a police patrol, wounding two civilians and damaging civilian cars parked nearby, said police Lt. Col. Ahmed Aboud.
After intense fighting with militants entrenched on the south bank of the Euphrates River early in Operation Matador, Marines saw only light resistance on Tuesday and advanced through sparsely populated settlements along a 12-mile stretch to the border with Syria, according to a Chicago Tribune reporter embedded with the assault, James Janega.
Gunmen kidnapped Anbar’s governor on Tuesday morning and told his family he would be released only when US forces withdrew from Qaim, the town 200 miles west of Baghdad where the offensive began late on Saturday.
Governor Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi was seized as he drove from Qaim to the provincial capital of Ramadi, his brother, Hammad, told The Associated Press.
Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for US forces in Iraq, said: “We don’t respond to insurgent or terrorist demands.”
At the Pentagon, Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Tuesday the assault in the northern Jazirah Desert had run into well-equipped and trained fighters.
“There are reports that these people are in uniforms, in some cases are wearing protective vests, and there’s some suspicion that their training exceeds what we have seen with other engagements further east,” he said.
Marine commanders in the field told The Chicago Tribune that militants put up an unexpectedly intense fight in villages dotting the Euphrates as it snakes across the desert toward the Syrian border.
As troops erected a pontoon bridge on Sunday, mortar fire began to fall on them from the nearby town of Obeidi, 200 miles west of Baghdad, the Tribune said.
Navy and Marine F/A-18 Hornet strike jets strafed the tree line and Marine Cobra attack helicopters fired rockets into insurgent hideouts, the Tribune said.
When Marines entered the town on Sunday, they found insurgents prepared for battle. Sandbag bunkers stood in front of some houses, and other gunmen fired from rooftops and balconies, according to a Los Angeles Times reporter also embedded with the troops. As fighting continued into Monday, the insurgents used boats to ferry weapons across the river.
At one point, the paper said, a Marine walked into a house and a fighter hiding in the basement fired through a floor grate, killing him. Another Marine suffered shrapnel wounds when an insurgent threw a grenade through the window of a house where he was retrieving a wounded comrade, the Times said.