U.S. fighter jets carried out airstrikes as hundreds of U.S. Marines backed by tanks battled insurgents in an assault Friday on a dusty frontier town near the Syrian border, the third major campaign in seven weeks to dislodge militants using the western desert region to sneak foreign suicide attackers into Iraq.
About 1,000 Marines and Iraqi forces, backed up by main battle tanks, fought their way into Karabilah, a frontier town in Anbar province where U.S. forces said they killed 40 militants in airstrikes on June 11. The Marines were all from Regimental Combat Team 2 of the 2nd Marine Division. There were no reports on American or Iraqi military casualties.
"Throughout the day Iraqi soldiers and Marines battled insurgents holed up in buildings within the city. Coalition aircraft using precision-guided munitions destroyed these targets. Only buildings occupied by insurgents firing on Marines and Iraqi soldiers were bombed. Three buildings were confirmed destroyed," Marine Captain Jeffrey Pool said in an announcement from Ramadi, capital of restive Anbar province.
The tenacity militants have show in Iraq's western desert — two major Marine operations have so far failed to weed them out — has highlighted the difficulty faced by the U.S. military and the Iraqi security forces to quash the insurgency's more extreme elements.
Marines carried out two major operations in the area last month, killing 125 insurgents in the first campaign, Operation Matador, and 14 in the second, Operation New Market. Eleven Marines were killed in those two actions, designed to scatter and eradicate insurgents using the road from Damascus to Baghdad.
In other developments:
Codenamed Romhe, Arabic for spear, the new campaign began just before dawn in the desert wastes around karabilah and nearby Qaim, a lawless Iraqi border town about 200 miles west of Baghdad that squats at the crossroads of an insurgent smuggling route leading into the country from neighboring Syria.
"Operation Romhe began in the early morning hours to root out insurgents and foreign terrorists and disrupt insurgent support systems in and around Karabilah," Pool said.
The military said two Marines assigned to 2nd Marine Division were killed in action Thursday when their vehicle hit a bomb. The military said Friday that the incident took place during combat operations near Ramadi, which is 70 miles west of Baghdad.
The deaths raised to 13 the number of Marines killed in separate attacks around Anbar during the past week. Two sailors also have died.
The Karabilah operation came one day after U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Don Alston called the Syrian border the "worst problem" in terms of stemming the influx of foreign fighters to Iraq. Syria is under intense pressure from Washington and Baghdad to tighten control of its porous 380-mile border with Iraq.
During the assault of Karabilah, Marines said they evacuated four Iraqi civilians — including two women — who were injured in the fighting.
"The civilians were wounded after insurgents seized their home and fired at Marines and soldiers. There are no other reports of civilian casualties," Pool said.
He added that it was "not known how many of the insurgents fighting in Karabilah are foreign terrorists."
The area around Qaim has been flush with insurgents in recent weeks, forcing the Marines on June 11 to carrying out airstrikes that killed about 40 militants after a nearly five-hour gunfight on the outskirts of Karabilah.
That battle was also where insurgents had killed 21 people after beheading three of them. Those bodies, found on June 10, were believed to belong to a group of missing Iraqi soldiers.
U.S. military intelligence officials believe the Qaim area is the main entry point used by extremist groups such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq to smuggle foreign fighters into the country.
U.S. Intelligence officials say foreign Islamic extremists are recruited in Gulf states and undergo rigorous religious indoctrination before being brought to Iraq. They are then placed into cars rigged with explosives — often with their hands and feet taped to the steering wheel and gas pedal and sent on suicide missions.
There have been at least 1,095 people killed since Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's Shiite-led government was announced in late April.