AL QAIM, Iraq - U.S. Marines rolling though towns on the upper Euphrates River said yesterday that they found dead insurgent fighters in bulletproof armor and wearing foreign clothes. In the towns, they reported finding caches of weapons and suicide-bomb vests, as well as car bombs rigged to explode.
Commanders said they believe the finds are strong indications that foreign fighters make up part of the resistance facing them as they conduct an offensive aimed at rooting out insurgents near the Syrian border.
"I've always been skeptical of the amount of foreign fighters said to be out here," said Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Regimental Combat Team-2, responsible for this corner of Anbar province. "That skepticism is removed as of this operation."
Davis said his assessment was based on the examination of dead insurgents as well as the interrogations of captured fighters. Some, he said, wore white clothes favored by Yemeni or Saudi men, not the colorful garb favored by local Iraqis. One dead man wore a beard trimmed in a manner common to Saudi Arabia, rather than the Saddam Hussein-style mustaches seen among Iraqis.
During interrogations, many prisoners speak with foreign accents or use foreign phrases, said an interpreter who asked not to be identified. And some prisoners "just flat out admit" that they are from other countries, Davis said, without identifying the countries.
According to the Marines, the fighters also are employing different tactics - they are better equipped and better trained than the Iraqis the Marines have fought since arriving in Anbar province in February.
"We mostly deal with Iraqis," Davis said. "These are different."
Since the fighting began Sunday, Marines backed by armored vehicles have moved north of the Euphrates, where the U.S. military believes a group of insurgents numbering in the hundreds has taken refuge. The remote area is home to many Sunni Muslims opposed to the Shiite-dominated government that took office last month, touching off a bloody round of suicide bombings and other insurgent attacks that have killed more than 300 people.
A suicide car bomb exploded in a small market near a police station in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit today, killing at least 24 people and wounding 70, police said.
Police Lt. Col. Saad Daham said that security prevented the attacker from exploding the vehicle in front of the police station, but that the bomber swerved into a crowd of people at the nearby market.
The bomb exploded at 7:15 a.m., and many day laborers who had traveled to Tikrit from poor areas of Iraq were waiting at the market to be picked up for work at construction sites, Daham said.
He said at least 23 civilians and one policeman were killed, and 69 civilians and one policeman wounded. At Tikrit General Hospital, Dr. Faisal Mahmoud said the facility was too small to handle so many casualties.
In Hawija, a small town 150 miles north of Baghdad, a man with explosives hidden under his clothes set them off while standing in a line of people waiting outside a police and army recruitment center today, killing 30 people and wounding 35, police said.
Police first thought the powerful blast in Hawija was caused by a car bomb, but Police Maj. Sarhad Qadir later said officials found it was an attacker standing in a line of about 150 recruits.
U.S. intelligence has suggested that insurgents have used the region north of the Euphrates as a haven, often floating across the Syrian border.
Early reports say the fighting, door to door in some towns, is the toughest since the fight for Fallujah in November.
In an audacious move, insurgents kidnapped the provincial governor yesterday, telling his family he would be released when U.S. forces withdrew. Gov. Raja Nawaf Farhan al-Mahalawi was seized as he drove from Al Qaim to the provincial capital of Ramadi, his brother said.
Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said the military would not respond to the demands.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.