OBEIDI, Iraq – The U.S. military wrapped up a major offensive in a remote desert region near the Syrian border Saturday, saying it had cleaned out the terrorist haven and killed more than 125 militants during the weeklong campaign against followers of Iraq's most wanted terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (search).
Nine U.S. Marines were killed and 40 injured during Operation Matador (search) — one of the largest American campaigns since militants were driven from Fallujah six months ago. The number of civilian casualties was not immediately known.
American troops, backed by warplanes and helicopter gunships, swept through desert outposts along ancient smuggling routes, believed to be staging areas for foreign fighters who slip over the border and collect weapons to launch deadly attacks in Iraq's (search) major cities.
More than 1,000 Marines, soldiers and sailors participated in the operation, killing more than 125 terrorists, wounding many others and detaining 39 "of intelligence value," the military said in a statement. It provided no further information about the detainees.
Numerous weapons caches containing machine guns, mortar rounds and rockets were discovered. Six car bombs and material for making other improvised explosive devises were also found, the statement said.
The military said the operation confirmed its intelligence about a region north of the Euphrates River, including the existence of "cave complexes" used by terrorists in the nearby escarpment. It did not elaborate, but said U.S. and Iraqi forces would be back.
The U.S. military said the seven-day operation "neutralized" an terrorist sanctuary. But in Qaim, the town where the campaign began, masked fighters armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades remained in plain sight just 24 hours earlier, setting up checkpoints and vowing to defend the town if U.S. forces return.
The U.S. assault came amid a surge of militant attacks that have killed more than 450 people in just over two weeks since Iraq's first democratically elected government was announced.
At least 13 more Iraqis died Saturday in a series of ambushes and bombings. They included a senior Iraqi Foreign Ministry official slain in a drive-by shooting outside his Baghdad home Saturday night, police said. Three bystanders were also injured in the attack that killed Jassim Mohammed Ghani, a director general in the ministry, police Capt. Talib Thamer said.
On Sunday, two bomb blasts in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killed four and wounded 37, a hospital official said. The governor of the province of Diyala was targeted by one of the bombings, police said. He was unharmed.
The U.S. offensive began May 7 in Qaim, a town 200 miles northwest of Baghdad on the southern bank of the Euphrates River. American intelligence indicated terrorists had massed north of the waterway, according to reporters embedded with the assault. But as soldiers built a pontoon bridge, they started taking mortar fire from nearby Obeidi.
When U.S. forces entered the village on May 8, they confronted well-equipped fighters — some with body armor — fighting from rooftops, basements and sandbag bunkers positioned in front of some homes. U.S. forces pounded the area with air strikes and artillery barrages, and some 70 terrorists were killed in the first 24 hours of the operation alone.
Pentagon officials conceded, however, that the terrorists were better trained and equipped than previously thought.
The next day, U.S. forces crossed the Euphrates and pushed along the winding river to the border, meeting little resistance, the military said.
Periodic airstrikes continued into Friday, including one that killed 12 terrorists manning a checkpoint east of Husaybah, a nearby village, the military said. Another Friday air strike targeted a suspected terrorist safe house in nearby Karabilah. Secondary explosions indicated the presence of weapons and munitions in the building, the military said.
But terrorists also inflicted a toll, killing six Marines in one squad when their troop transporter hit a bomb near Karabilah on Wednesday.
A long column of U.S. troops, backed by tanks and helicopters, rolled back across the river Saturday and surrounded Obeidi, sending frightened villagers scurrying into their homes.
Shelling began several hours later, damaging a house in the old part of the village and wounding five people, said Dr. Saadallah Anad at Obeidi General Hospital. Anad said he did not know if it was hit by U.S. weapons fire.
U.S. military spokesman Capt. Jeffrey Pool said Marines conducted a "cordon and search" operation in the area, looking for terrorists, foreign fighters, weapons and bomb-making material. But he said Obeidi was not hit by air or artillery strikes on Saturday.
Rival groups of terrorists also were fighting among themselves around Qaim, trading mortar, rocket and machine gun fire almost nightly, Pool said. Residents acknowledged fighting in Qaim and surrounding villages began before the U.S. offensive, characterizing it as tribal clashes.
Residents reached by telephone in the old part of Obeidi said U.S. vehicles rolled through their area but met no resistance and withdrew late Saturday.
Thousands fled the area during the offensive, pitching flimsy tents along sand-blown desert highways or seeking shelter in schools and mosques in nearby towns.
The military denied resident reports that they had been without water and electricity in some areas since the offensive began.
"Throughout the course of the operation, Marines strove to ensure the well-being of the local Iraqi citizens," the statement said. "According to commanders in the area, the Marines were greeted with greater hospitality from local villagers than is normally encountered."
Elsewhere Saturday, U.S. airstrikes destroyed two unoccupied buildings near Fallujah that the military identified as an terrorist command center, weapons storage site, detention and possible torture facility. It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties in the attack, about 40 miles west of the Iraqi capital.
Meanwhile, arrest warrants have been issued against two former Cabinet ministers as the new government cracks down on corruption, according to officials in the office of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and his party.
Former Transport Minister Louei Hatim Sultan al-Aris was charged with "administrative corruption," while ex-Labor Minister Leila Abdul-Latif was accused of "financial corruption" and bringing back into the government members of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime, said Jawad al-Maliki, a senior member of al-Jaafari's Dawa Party.
Al-Aris's whereabouts are unknown, but Abdul-Latif remains in the country, he said.
A 30-year-old detainee detained as a "security threat" at southeastern Iraq's Camp Bucca prison died of a heart attack Saturday, the U.S. military said. An investigation is underway into his death, the military said. Camp Bucca holds more than 6,000 Iraqi detainees.