QAIM, Iraq – U.S. troops battled insurgents holed up in houses and driving explosives-laden vehicles in a second town near the Syrian border Sunday, killing 28 in an expansion of their two-day-old offensive chasing Al Qaeda (search) fighters along the Euphrates River (search) valley, the military said.
Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed to have taken two Marines captive during the fighting and threatened to kill them within 24 hours unless all female Sunni detainees are released from U.S. and Iraqi prisons in the country. The U.S. military said the claim appeared false.
"There are no indications that the Al Qaeda claims ... are true," Multinational Force West, the command in the region said. It said it was conducting checks "to verify that all Marines are accounted for."
Even as the fighting continued, political differences among Iraqi leaders deepened ahead of the crucial Oct. 15 national vote on a new constitution. Iraq's Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani (search), called on the Shiite prime minister to step down over accusations he is monopolizing power in the government and ignoring his Kurdish coalition partners' demands, a spokesman for Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said.
The U.S. military says Al Qaeda in Iraq, the country's most fearsome insurgent group, has turned the area near the border into a "sanctuary" and a way-station for foreign fighters entering from Syria.
In Karabilah, Marines clashed with insurgents who opened fire from a building on Sunday in a firefight that killed eight militants, the military said.
The move into Karabilah widened the sweep launched a day earlier by 1,000 Marines, soldiers and sailors, starting with nearby Sadah — a tiny village about eight miles from the Syrian border.
Most of the militants appeared to have slipped out of Sadah before the force moved in, and hundreds of the village's residents fled into Syria ahead of the assault.
There was "virtually no opposition" in Sadah, the Marine commander in western Anbar province, Col. Stephen W. Davis, told The Associated Press.
At least 28 militants were killed in fighting Sunday, Davis said, bringing the two-day toll among insurgents to 36. There have been no serious U.S. casualties in the operation, he said.
U.S forces are aiming to clamp down on insurgents ahead of the Oct. 15 vote. Al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups in the Sunni-led insurgency have launched a wave of violence to wreck the vote, killing more than 200 people over the past week.
The U.S. operation in the Syrian border region is the fourth since May, but U.S. troops are too scattered and Iraqi forces too few to impose permanent control in the area the size of West Virginia. Militants have fled past assaults only to move back in once the bulk of U.S. forces leave.
Davis said the latest offensive would at least dislodge militants enough to allow residents of the region to vote on Oct. 15 — and could strike a heavy blow to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"There's only so many of them out there," Davis said of the insurgents. "The enemy has a problem out here — every time he shows up he gets bombs dropped on his head ... What you're seeing now is the dissolution of their network."
In Karabilah, militants forced their way into a building and began firing on Marines, and a U.S. tank fired a round into the building, wounding five civilians, the military said. Marines treated four of them for minor injuries and evacuated the fifth for treatment, it said.
Marine aircraft struck a group of seven insurgents between Karabilah and Sadah, killing four. The others ran into a nearby building, joining other fighters who opened fire on Marines. Warplanes then hit the building with six precision-guided bombs, the military said. In the same area, a suicide car bomber approached a Marine position but detonated 200 yards away, it said.
Elsewhere, Shiite militiamen freed the brother of Iraq's interior minister from kidnappers who snatched him from his car a day earlier, the freed man, Abdul-Jabbar Jabr, told Associated Press Television News.
Sunni Arab leaders, meanwhile, cried foul when the Shiite-dominated parliament passed new rulings on the upcoming referendum that will make it more difficult for Sunnis to defeat the constitution at the polls.
The parliament's move could undermine U.S. efforts to garner Sunni Arab support for the constitution. It could further alienate moderate Sunnis who say they want to participate in the political process but reject the draft constitution, which they contend will fragment Iraq among majority Shiites, the Kurds and Sunni Arabs.
Previous rules stated that the constitution is defeated if two-thirds of voters in three provinces reject it, a threshold that the Sunnis are capable of meeting.
The parliament's decision, however, raised the bar — saying two-thirds of registered voters must reject it, rather than two-thirds of those who actually cast ballots.
"The fraud has begun right from now," said Saleh al-Mutlaq (search), a leading Sunni politician.
The wrangling among Iraq's leaders, meanwhile, threatened to increase the political turmoil.
Talabani, who called for Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's (search) resignation, has previously accused Jaafari's Shiite bloc of monopolizing power in the government and refusing to move ahead on a key issue for Kurds, the resettlement of Kurds in the northern city of Kirkuk.
He has made indirect threats to withdraw from the coalition if Kurdish demands are not met — a step that could bring down the government.
Jawad al-Maliki, a Shiite legislator and a leader in al-Jaafari's Dawaa party, denounced the call.
"They should have asked us for that in a legal way, and then we will have discussions," he said. "It is not beneficial for Iraq, especially during this period of time because the country is heading to a referendum and elections."