BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. and Iraqi forces launched large-scale military raids against Sunni insurgent strongholds northwest of Baghdad Tuesday following two days of heavy fighting in the Sunni Triangle (search).
American forces supported Iraqi troops in raiding several mosques in Ramadi (search) Tuesday, saying guerilla fighters were hunkered down in the temples.
U.S. forces also launched airstrikes in Fallujah (search), destroying a popular restaurant and a house that the U.S. command said were being used by members of Iraq's most feared terrorist organization. At least five people were killed and two wounded, the city hospital said.
Residents reported hearing more explosions Tuesday evening on the eastern side of the city.
Also Tuesday, at least 15 people were reported killed in an attack on an Iraqi National Guard outpost east of Qaim near the Syrian border. Residents said U.S. warplanes were in action over the area, but the U.S. Marines said there were no American operations there and insurgents staged the attack. Between 15 and 20 people were killed in the attack, according to Hamid Ahmed Ali, a city hospital official.
The Marines sent a team to the outpost to assess the situation and see whether any assistance was needed.
American warplanes and helicopters also struck in two parts of Hit, killing two people and injuring five, the hospital said. Residents went to the town hall to demand authorities negotiate a cease-fire.
The operation in Hit came after insurgents hiding in a shrine there opened fire on American Marines Monday, the U.S. military said. U.S. aircraft responded by attacking the mosque and setting it on fire. Sporadic clashes continued through the night, killing at least two Iraqis and wounding 15, according to Hit General Hospital.
In Ramadi, insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades and small arms at U.S. positions, sparking a firefight that lasted throughout the night. Three Iraqi policemen and a civilian were killed in the fighting.
During raids on seven mosques in Ramadi, a senior cleric — Sheikh Abdul-Aleim Saadi, the provincial leader of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars (search) — was arrested by U.S. forces after dawn prayers.
In other developments Tuesday:
— The body of executed British hostage Kenneth Bigley (search) was dumped south of Baghdad, according to insurgent sources. The British Embassy said no body has been found yet.
— Reuters reported that gunmen in a car killed Abdul-Majeed al-Antar, a local Iraq council member as he drove to work in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, a local government spokesman said. Al-Antar was shot dead at about 9.30 a.m., about 240 miles north of Baghdad. His bodyguards survived.
Mosques Targeted in Ramadi
The seven mosques targeted in Ramadi are suspected of supporting insurgents through a range of activities, including harboring terrorists, storing illegal weapons caches, promoting violence and encouraging insurgent recruitment, the U.S. command said.
Angry residents accused Americans of disrespecting the sanctity of city mosques.
"This cowboy behavior cannot be accepted," said cleric Abdullah Abu Omar of the Ramadi Mosque. "The Americans seem to have lost their senses and have gone out of control."
The 1st Marine Division said the raids followed a pattern of insurgent activity in and around Ramadi mosques in recent weeks.
"The 1st Marine Division respects the religious and cultural significance represented by mosques," it said in a statement. "However, when insurgents violate the sanctity of the mosque by using the structure for military purposes, the site loses its protective status."
American Marines and soldiers provided backup and protection for Iraqi security forces during the raids but did not enter the mosques, said Maj. Francis Piccoli, a Marine spokesman.
The mosque raids in Ramadi followed two days of clashes in the city, a Sunni militant stronghold 70 miles west of Baghdad. Insurgents fired two mortars at the city hall and neighboring police directorate Monday night, sparking gunfire and rocket-propelled grenade exchanges, residents said.
Popular Restaurant Hit in Fallujah
Meanwhile, in insurgent-held Fallujah, U.S. warplanes struck the Haj Hussein restaurant as well as nearby shops at 12:01 a.m., residents said. The restaurant was closed at the time, but two night guards were killed, according to Dr. Ahmed Thaer from Fallujah General Hospital.
"Following the engagement, secondary explosions were reported, indicating the strong likelihood of weapons caches and explosive devices," the statement said. "Terrorists frequently planned operations from this location."
The second blast occurred at 4:02 a.m. and flattened a building in northeastern Fallujah, which the U.S. command said was a known terrorist safe house. Intelligence sources confirmed that al-Zarqawi associates were using the building at the time of the strike, a military statement said.
At least three people were killed and two wounded in the blast, Thaer said.
Al-Zarqawi's network has claimed responsibility for numerous car bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages, including American businessman Nicholas Berg (search) , South Korean translator Kim Sung-il (search) , British civil engineer Bigley and U.S. engineers Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley.
U.S. commanders say weeks of air and ground strikes in Fallujah have inflicted serious damage to al-Zarqawi's network.
Tuesday's strikes were the first since Oct. 6. The Iraqi government has reported progress in negotiations to restore control over the city 40 miles west of Baghdad.
Both Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and White House officials have said they plan to use a mix of diplomacy and military force to try to wrest control of dozens of key cities from insurgents before planned January elections.
On Friday, a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the strategy of stepped-up military action had already been seen in recent clashes over Najaf and Samarra — and "you see it in offensive military actions that are taking place now in parts of the so-called Sunni triangle."
Taking Stock in Sadr City
The latest violence came a day after Shiite fighters in Baghdad's Sadr City slum unloaded cars full of machine guns, mortars and land mines as a five-day, weapons-for-cash disarmament program got started.
A lasting peace in the sprawling slum would allow U.S. and Iraqi forces to focus on the mounting Sunni insurgency in Fallujah, Ramadi and elsewhere. Underscoring the threat, two American soldiers were killed in a rocket attack in another part of the capital Monday.
In Sadr City, followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) promised the government last weekend they would hand over medium and heavy weapons for cash in a deal considered an important step toward ending weeks of fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces. Iraqi police and National Guardsmen will then assume security responsibility for the district.
Rumsfeld, on a trip to Romania, said he was following the disarming of al-Sadr's followers.
"It is true, some elements are turning in some weapons," he said, adding that it was too early to know its significance or whether it would continue. "One hopes that over time, all of them will" turn in their weapons, he said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces are trying to clamp down on rebel enclaves in time to hold nationwide elections in January.
The increased military activity coincided with the approach of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and appeared intended to avoid a repeat of the upsurge in attacks that took place last year.
Also on Tuesday, Turkey's foreign minister confirmed that 10 Turks abducted last month in Iraq had been freed. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said 10 employees of the Turkish construction company VINSAN (search) were released and that their families were notified of their release.
"They are in good health, they were not treated badly, they're very happy to be released," Ali Haydar Veziroglu, VINSAN chairman of the board, told private NTV television by telephone from Baghdad.
Al-Jazeera television had reported the release of the 10 hostages on Sunday but Gul's announcement was the first confirmation that they were free. The Ankara-based construction company announced in late September that it was halting operations in Iraq.
A videotape surfaced on the Internet Tuesday showing what was said to be the confession and beheading of an Arab Shiite Muslim, presumably Iraqi, who was accused of serving the U.S. Army by "assassinating Sunni leaders."
FOX News' John Cookson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.