Militants killed five US Marines, and authorities found 21 bodies near the Syrian border, where American and Iraqi troops bore down in two recent major operations aimed at crushing a tenacious insurgency.
The victims, thought to be missing Iraqi soldiers, were shot repeatedly in the head and found blindfolded, their hands tied behind their backs. Three were beheaded.
The killings were a clear sign of the profound difficulties faced by US and Iraqi forces in Anbar province around the dusty, lawless frontier town of Qaim, and their inability to seal the porous desert border with Syria despite major efforts to boost their military presence in the area.
Also yesterday, a car bomb killed four men and wounded nine as they sat outside a restaurant in Baghdad waiting to pick up falafel sandwiches.
The bloodshed came as politicians seeking a negotiated solution to the insurgency once again wrangled over a promise to give Sunni Arabs a bigger say in charting Iraq’s future.
The Marines were killed on Thursday in a roadside bombing while conducting combat operations near the volatile Sunni town of Haqlaniyah, 90 miles northwest of Baghdad, the military said.
Their deaths brought to at least 1,689 the number of US military members killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003.
The 21 Iraqi bodies were found near Qaim, 80 miles west of Haqlaniyah, along a highway that meanders along the Euphrates River and into Syria. They were in three locations, haphazardly dumped by the roadside in a gravel pit and in sand flats. Three were beheaded and at least one had been mauled by animals.
US military intelligence officials believe the Qaim area sits at the crossroads of a major route used by groups such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq to smuggle foreign fighters into the country.
“It’s like the Mexican-American border there. There are attempts being made to seal it,” a senior US military intelligence official said.
Marines carried out two major operations in the area last month, killing 125 insurgents in the first campaign, Operation Matador, and 14 in the second, Operation New Market. Eleven Marines were killed in the actions, designed to scatter and eradicate insurgents using the road from Damascus to Baghdad.
Insurgents are so rooted in the region that after a May 29 gun battle in a village between Qaim and Haqlaniyah, US forces were surprised to find the body of the kidnapped governor of Anbar province chained to a propane tank and killed by falling rubble.