QAIM, Iraq – About 1,000 U.S. troops, backed by attack helicopters and warplanes, swept into a village near the Syrian border Saturday in an offensive aimed at rooting out Al Qaeda (search) militants and stemming violence ahead of a crucial vote on a new constitution.
U.S. aircraft firing missiles struck houses and cars, sending palls of smoke into the sky as the forces moved into Sadah (search), according to residents contacted by The Associated Press. In the evening, Marines and insurgents clashed in the streets, they said.
The U.S. military said Al Qaeda in Iraq, the country's most fearsome militant group behind a wave of homicide bombings, had taken control of Sadah and that foreign fighters were using it as a way station as they enter from Syria to join the insurgency.
The assault was the fourth large U.S. offensive in the border area since May. But the militants who run rampant in large parts of western Iraq have proven difficult to put down, moving back to towns after the assaults are over and the bulk of troops withdraw.
Al Qaeda and other Sunni-led insurgents have stepped up their campaign of violence, killing at least 205 people this week in an attempt to wreck the Oct. 15 referendum on the constitution, a vital step in Iraq's political process.
Iraq's Sunni Arab minority — which ruled under Saddam Hussein (search) but lost power after his ouster — opposes the draft charter, fearing it will split Iraq and consecrate Shiite and Kurdish domination.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has declared "all-out war" on Shiites, and since a Shiite-majority government took power in Iraq on April 28, suicide bombers have killed at least 1,345 people, according to an Associated Press count.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed by explosions while on patrols Saturday — one in Baghdad and another in Beiji, 155 miles north of the capital, the military said. Fifteen U.S. service members have been killed this week — and at least 1,935 have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003.
In Baghdad, insurgents kidnapped the brother of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr Solagh (search), the Shiite official who heads police forces, and the son of another top ministry official was kidnapped north of the capital, ministry spokesman Maj. Felah al-Mohammedawi said.
U.S. troops sealed off Sadah, 180 miles northwest of Baghdad, and U.S. and Iraqi officials released no information on casualties on the first day of the assault.
Troops went house to house, blasting open doors in a hunt for insurgents, but so far no weapons caches or significant militant figures had been found, a correspondent for CNN embedded with the troops said. Helicopters fired on three vehicles as the force moved in, including two that were carrying suicide bombers and a third that was being loaded with weapons, CNN reported.
Sadah is an isolated village of about 2,000 people on the banks of the Euphrates River, with one main road and about 200 houses scattered in a rural area about eight miles from the Syrian border, near the town of Qaim (search) in Iraq's western province of Anbar.
The offensive, named Operation Iron Fist (search), was launched by a force of Marines, soldiers and sailors, aiming to root out Al Qaeda militants who have turned Sadah into a "terrorist sanctuary" and to stop infiltration by foreign fighters, the military said in a statement.
Marines carried out two major operations around Qaim in May, killing 125 insurgents in the first campaign, Operation Matador, and about 50 in the second, Operation Spear in mid-June in the town of Karabilah. Nine Marines were killed in those actions.
In September, thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops fought through the city of Tal Afar, farther northwest along the border in Nineveh province, killing more than 150 insurgents and capturing more than 300, according to Iraqi military figures.
Two weeks after that offensive, a female homicide bomber infiltrated the city and set off a blast that killed six Iraqi army recruits on Wednesday — illustrating the difficulty of completely suppressing militants.
The Tal Afar assault included a large force of Iraqi troops alongside the Americans, but like the previous operations around Qaim, Iron Fist appeared to include only a minimal Iraqi presence — the U.S. military did not mention any at all, and police in Qaim said only a few Iraqis were participating.
President Bush said he was encouraged by the increasing size and capability of the Iraqi security forces, touting progress on a key measure for when U.S. troops can come home.
"They have made important gains in recent weeks and months; they are adapting our strategy to meet the needs on the ground; and they're helping us to bring victory in the war on terror," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address.
In other violence Saturday, a roadside bomb hit a patrol of Danish troops as they crossed a bridge in the southern city of Basra, killing one Dane — the first Danish fatality from hostile fire in Iraq — and wounding at least two others.
The U.S. military released about 500 Iraqi detainees from the notorious Abu Ghraib (search) prison on the outskirts of Baghdad on Saturday, the second and final part of a release of 1,000 this week in honor of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The move also aimed at persuading Sunnis to vote in the upcoming referendum.
The alliance at the center of Iraq's government also was showing strains, with Kurdish leaders accusing Shiite parties that dominate the Cabinet of monopolizing power and ignoring past promises — particularly to start resettlement of Kurds in the northern city of Kirkuk.
Kurds warned they would consider withdrawing from the government, causing it to collapse, if their demands weren't met — a step that would deepen political turmoil ahead of the referendum.