U.S. Clashes with Foes in North Iraq, Hits Falluja
Thu Sep 9, 7:32 AM ET
By Luke Baker
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. and Iraqi forces clashed with suspected foreign militants close to Iraq (news - web sites)'s border with Syria on Thursday, leaving nearly two dozen rebels dead, while U.S. war planes struck west of Baghdad for a third straight day.
Fierce fighting around the town of Tal Afar, a suspected haven for foreign fighters about 60 miles east of the Syrian border in Iraq's far north, left 22 insurgents dead and more than 70 wounded, a local government health official said.
There were no immediate reports of any U.S. or Iraqi government casualties in the fighting, which was sparked on Saturday and has intensified over the past 24 hours.
Sources in Tal Afar's local government and the Iraqi National Guard said 57 people had been killed in the fighting since Saturday and three fighters had been captured.
"The situation is critical," Rabee Yassin, general manager for health in Nineveh province, told Reuters. "Ambulances and medical supplies cannot get to Tal Afar because of the ongoing military operations."
U.S. forces said in a statement the assault was in response to provocation after they and Iraqi security forces "were repeatedly attacked by a large terrorist element that has displaced local Iraqi Security forces throughout recent weeks."
"These attacks by terrorist groups included rocket-propelled grenades, small arms fire, mortars and roadside bombs, and resulted in civilian casualties. Many Iraqi families have been forced from their homes under threat by these terrorists."
On Saturday, U.S. forces and guerrillas battled in Tal Afar for several hours in clashes that killed at least 13 people.
Further south, U.S. warplanes bombed rebel-held Falluja for a third successive night. The U.S. military said the assault was part of a "precision strike" on an operating base for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant Washington says is allied to Osama bin Laden (news - web sites)'s al Qaeda network.
"The target was a building frequently used by terrorists at the time of the strike. Three Zarqawi associates were reported to be in the area, no other individuals were present at the time of the strike," the statement said.
But doctors in Falluja said at least eight people were killed. Doctor Rafi Hayad said four of them were children and two women. Iraq's Health Ministry said at least 16 people had been killed in fighting in Falluja in the past 24 hours.
Reuters Television pictures showed several bloodied and heavily bandaged children being treated in a Falluja hospital after the air strikes.
The United States blames Zarqawi for masterminding a series of suicide bomb attacks and the killing of several hostages. It has offered a $25 million reward for his capture.
A statement posted on an Islamic Web Site and claiming to come from Zarqawi's group said four of his militants had been killed in the U.S. bombardment of Falluja earlier this week.
The past few days have seen a surge in attacks and clashes in Iraq that pushed the official Pentagon (news - web sites) U.S. death toll for the war to above 1,000.
NO WORD ON HOSTAGES
As well as trying to contain the insurgency, Iraq's government is also grappling with a hostage crisis.
In one of the most brazen abductions so far, two Italian women aid workers and two Iraqi colleagues were snatched from their office in central Baghdad in broad daylight on Tuesday. No word has yet emerged from their captors.
On Wednesday, international aid agencies met to consider withdrawing from Iraq. Jean-Dominique Bunel, a Frenchman helping to coordinate aid groups operating in Iraq, said he expected most of the remaining 50 foreign aid workers to pull out soon.
Since April, people from more than two dozen countries have been kidnapped as guerrillas have tried to force foreign troops and firms to leave. More than 20 foreigners have been killed.
The kidnapping of the Italians has piled more pressure on Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, most of whose voters strongly oppose Italy's role in Iraq. Italy has the third largest military contingent in the country, with 2,700 troops.
In August, Islamic guerrillas kidnapped and killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni. Security guard Fabrizio Quattrocchi was shot in the back of the head by his captors in April.
The latest abductions are likely to fuel uncertainty over the fate of two French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who have been held since Aug. 20 despite intense diplomatic efforts to free them.
(Additional reporting by Fadil Badran in Falluja and Mahar al-Thanoon in Mosul)