BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. forces backed by helicopter gunships and warplanes swept through a large area of western Iraq near the Syrian border for a third day Tuesday, raiding desert outposts and safe houses belonging to insurgents, the U.S. military said.
In Baghdad (search), a car bomb exploded in a central business district Tuesday, and a police officer said at least seven people were killed and 16 wounded. The bomb exploded just as a U.S. military convoy of Humvees and armored vehicles was passing, the officer said on condition of anonymity.
As many as 100 militants have been killed since Operation Matador (search), the largest American military offensive in Iraq in six months, began Saturday night in the border town of Qaim, 200 miles west of Baghdad, the military said.
At least three U.S. Marines have been killed in the offensive, which was hunting for followers of Iraq's most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search), leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, said U.S. officials.
A fourth U.S. Marine died Monday, but it was not immediately clear if that happened during the offensive, the military said.
A Los Angeles Times reporter embedded with the offensive said 20 U.S. troops also were wounded, but the U.S. military could not immediately confirm that.
On Tuesday, fighting was reported in Obeidi, 185 miles west of Baghdad, and the two nearby towns of Rommana and Karabilah, an Associated Press reporter in the region said. He said large numbers of Qaim residents were fleeing the area.
On Monday night, insurgents attempted to launch a counterattack 5 miles from U.S. Camp Gannon in Qaim, said U.S. Marine Capt. Jeffrey Pool. They attacked a Marine convoy with small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades, roadside bombs and two suicide car bombers, Pool said in a statement.
One bomb damaged an armored Humvee, and a suicide car bomber was destroyed by a Marine tank, but no Marines were killed and 10 insurgents surrendered, Pool said.
The offensive by more than 1,000 Marines, sailors and soldiers included helicopter gunships, fighter jets, tanks and light armored vehicles. U.S. officials described the area as a known smuggling route and a haven for foreign fighters involved in Iraq's insurgency.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle fighters dropped two 500-pound laser-guided bombs and fired 510 20-millimeter cannon rounds Sunday against insurgents around Qaim and that Marine F/A-18 fighters fired 319 20-millimeter cannon rounds.
The paper quoted U.S. Col. Bob Chase, chief of operations for the Second Marine Division, as saying: "The enemy honestly felt that they had a sense of security up there. It had been a safe haven, and a lot of folks up there were former Baathists," referring to Saddam Hussein's former ruling party.
"Now it is no longer a safe haven, and it will never be a safe haven again," said Chase. He was quoted as saying insurgents have had a network of illegal "rat lines" of men and materials moving from Syria into Iraq that had to be stopped, and said the offensive would continue for several days.
The Los Angeles Times reporter embedded with the offensive said the insurgents appeared well-prepared, having sandbag bunkers piled in front of some homes and that fighters were strategically positioned on rooftops and balconies.
In the towns of Sabah, Obeidi and Karabilah, the reporter said, insurgents fired mortar rounds at U.S. Marine convoys along the Euphrates River's southern edge.
Marines who pursued attackers in those towns took part in house-to-house combat against dozens of well-armed insurgents, the Los Angeles Times reported.
At one point, the paper said, a Marine walked into a house and an insurgent hiding in the basement fired through a floor grate, killing him. Another Marine who was retrieving a wounded comrade inside a house suffered shrapnel wounds when an insurgent threw a grenade through a window, the Times said.
The report said the insurgents were using boats to transport weapons from one side of the Euphrates River to another, and that some militants wore body armor. It said a Marine suffered a broken back and at least two were wounded Sunday when a land mine hit their tank.
The offensive was the biggest in Iraq by U.S. forces since the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah fell last fall, the military said.
Meanwhile, militants claimed in an Internet posting on Monday to have captured a Japanese man after ambushing an international British security company's convoy in western Iraq. A spokesman for the company confirmed the employee was missing.
A senior military official in Washington said Monday the offensive was targeting followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who are believed operating in the remote region.
"This is an area which we believe has been pretty heavy with foreign insurgents from many different areas — Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine," Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, told The Associated Press. "That's a fairly porous area of the border because of the terrain. It is very difficult."
Acting on information from a captured al-Zarqawi associate, U.S. forces moved into Qaim overnight Saturday, killing six insurgents and detaining 54 suspects, the military said. Local residents were providing a "wealth of information," about the insurgency and foreign fighters in their area, said Pool.