Iraq Militants Strike Back

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U.S. forces hunting down followers of Iraq's most wanted terrorist pushed into a lawless region north of the Euphrates River near the Syrian border Tuesday after meeting unexpected resistance from insurgents hidden in remote desert outposts along the waterway's southern banks.

Hitting back, gunmen kidnapped the provincial governor and told his family he would be released when U.S. forces withdraw from Qaim, 200 miles west of Baghdad, where the offensive was launched late Saturday, his relatives said. Gov. Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi was seized as he drove from Qaim to the provincial capital of Ramadi, his brother, Hammad, told The Associated Press.

Marines fought house-to-house Monday against dozens of well-armed insurgents firing at them from balconies, rooftops and sandbagged bunkers in nearby Obeidi and surrounding villages, the Los Angeles Times reported.

As many as 100 militants have been killed so far in Operation Matador, one of the largest American offensives in Iraq in six months, the military said. At least three U.S. Marines have been killed in the offensive, which involves more than 1,000 Marines, sailors and soldiers backed by helicopter gunships and fighter jets.

A Los Angeles Times reporter embedded with U.S. forces said 20 American troops also were wounded, but the U.S. military could not immediately confirm that.

The offensive comes amid a surge of militant attacks across Iraq, often targeting security forces and civilians, since the new government was announced April 28.

In other recent developments:

  • At least two car bombs exploded in central Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least seven people and wounding 19, police said. Three American soldiers were among the injured, the U.S. military said. The worst car bomb attack occurred near a cinema in al-Nasr Square, a main intersection of shops, office buildings and apartments.
  • Also Tuesday, Iraq's parliament appointed a 55-member committee of legislators from the country's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups to draw up the country's new constitution.
  • The military also said three U.S. Marines were killed in central Iraq on Monday, one by a homemade bomb in Nasser Wa Salaam, 25 miles west of Baghdad, and two others by indirect fire in Karmah, 50 miles west of the capital.
  • Japan's defense chief, Yoshinori Ono, said Tuesday the apparent kidnapping of one of its citizens would not affect the country's deployment of 550 troops on a humanitarian mission in southern Iraq. The victim's family supported that pledge. The Sunni militant Ansar al-Sunnah Army claimed on its Web site Monday that it had kidnapped Akihiko Saito, 44, after ambushing a group of five foreign contractors protected by Iraqi forces. A spokesman for Saito's employer, Cyprus-based security firm Hart GMSSCO, confirmed he was missing after an ambush Sunday night involving Hart personnel.

    U.S. Marine Capt. Jeffrey Pool said soldiers built a pontoon bridge across the Euphrates River on Monday and Marines had pushed into the northern Jazirah Desert, a largely unpatrolled area near the Syrian border.

    "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 late Monday. "That's a fairly porous area of the border because of the terrain. It is very difficult."

    Residents in the area reported fighting Tuesday in Obeidi, 185 miles west of Baghdad, and the two nearby towns of Rommana and Karabilah. Speaking by telephone, they said frightened residents were fleeing the Qaim area.