Insurgents armed with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades battled about 3,500 US and Iraqi troops today on the streets of Husaybah in the second day of an offensive to rout al-Qaida from its stronghold along the Syrian border.
Two American service members were reportedly wounded in Saturday’s fighting. Brig Gen Donald Alston told reporters today that no US or Iraqi forces had been killed.
“We are having contact with the enemy, but we are not meeting stiff resistance,” Alston said. “They are using small arms fire.”
The New York Times, which had a reporter embedded with the offensive, reported that coalition forces supported by tanks and fighter jets dropping 500lbs bombs met more resistance than expected from insurgents in the town of Husaybah, and only managed to take control of several blocks by nightfall on Saturday.
At least two US service members were wounded by sporadic enemy fire down alleyways as US-led forces advanced in the town house by house, searching each one, the Times reported.
“We met more resistance than I expected,” said US Capt Conlon Carabine of Indian Company of the Third Battalion, Sixth Marine Regiment.
The coalition forces sometimes found it hard to spot insurgents hiding in the town’s 4,000 homes and called in support from Abrams tanks and fighter jets, the Times said.
The “Operation Steel Curtain” offensive in Husaybah is aimed at sealing off a main route for foreign fighters entering Iraq and was seen as a key to controlling the volatile Euphrates River valley of western Iraq and dislodging the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq.
The US-led operation, which included about 1,000 Iraqi soldiers, also will serve as a major test of their capability to battle the insurgents – seen as essential to enabling Washington to draw down its 157,000-strong military presence.
“The insurgents are throwing everything they have at the Iraqi people and coalition forces in an effort to derail Iraq’s democratic reforms,” Alston said.
He said the offensive is aimed at interrupting the supply lines that al Qaida in Iraq uses to launch some of the deadliest suicide attacks Iraq suffers in crowded cities such as Baghdad.
When the offensive began early on Saturday, thunderous explosions shook Husaybah as US Marines and Iraqi scouts, recruited from pro-government tribes from the area, fought their way into the western neighbourhoods of the town, residents said.
As the fighting continued 200 miles northwest of Baghdad coalition forces encountered sporadic resistance, mostly small arms fire and IEDs, “improvised explosive devices” or roadside bombs, the US command statement said.
One of nine coalition air strikes destroyed a suspected suicide car bomb, and six other bombs and land mines were discovered by US and Iraqi ground forces, the military said.
US commanders hope the Husaybah offensive will restore control of western Anbar province ahead of Iraq’s parliamentary election on December 15 and enable Sunni Arabs there to vote.
Sunnis form the vast majority of the insurgents, and US officials hope that a strong Sunni turnout next month will encourage many of them to lay down arms and join the political process.
Husaybah, a poor Sunni Arab town of about 30,000 people, is the first stop in a network of communities that the US military suspects al-Qaida of using to smuggle fighters, weapons and explosives from Syria down the Euphrates valley to Baghdad and other cities.