Roadside bombs in Iraq kill 6 Marines fighting militants

At least 50 alleged insurgents die in two sweeps, military officials say


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Six U.S. Marines were killed by roadside bombs in Iraq during heavy fighting west of Baghdad, the military said yesterday.

The deaths came as U.S. forces wrapped up one of two operations carried out in western Anbar province against insurgents ahead of a national referendum Oct. 15 on an Iraqi constitution.

Four of the Marines, assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, were killed Thursday near Karmah, about 50 miles west of the Iraqi capital. The other two, assigned to the 2nd Division's Regimental Combat Team 2, also were killed Thursday near the town of Qaim, close to the Syrian border.

More than 3,500 U.S. and Iraqi troops took part over the past week in the two operations, Iron Fist and River Gate, along the Euphrates River. The U.S. military said yesterday that at least 50 alleged insurgents were killed during the six-day Iron Fist alone, which concluded Thursday. A toll was not given for River Gate.

The two offensives were intended to crush logistical support for insurgents who, U.S. commanders believe, are coming into Iraq across the border with Syria.

While officially ending the Iron Fist portion of the operation, which involved about 1,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors, the military has established new outposts in Sadah, about 12 miles from the Syrian border, to control an area that has long been a trouble spot for American troops.

Some residents in Al Anbar, however, believe the military attacks were politically motivated and would only encourage more Iraqis to join the insurgency.

"This is all tied up with the timing of the referendum," said Sheik Iusamah Judaan, a tribal leader from the village of Karabilah, near Qaim.

American military operations "will hinder the political process rather than facilitate it," he said in a telephone interview. "How can we have a referendum in one week?"

Sunni Arab leader Saleh Mutlak, who is negotiating last-minute Sunni demands for constitutional amendments, urged insurgents and Americans to observe a cease-fire during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began this week.

"We should not fight during Ramadan," Mutlak said, adding that he has called on other leaders to participate in a conference that he hopes could lead to dialogue between insurgents and Americans. "We are approaching the referendum and elections. All this needs a peaceful climate to work."

Judaan said fighting in the west was so brutal that residents "are now seeing members of their families being killed in front of their own eyes by the American bombardment."

"Obviously, they'll seek revenge, and this is what's happening," he said.

The allegations of civilian deaths could not be verified. Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, a U.S. military spokesman, said he had no reports of civilian casualties from those offensives.

"All of our operations are conducted knowing we have civilians in the area," he said. "We minimize damage as much as possible, and that includes civilians."

American forces cordoned off the town of Haditha, about 125 miles northwest of Baghdad, and bombed several bridges along the river, according to witnesses.

"The health situation is bad in the city because the Americans applied a curfew," Ayad Ghazi, acting director of Haditha Hospital, said in a telephone interview. The sick and injured have been unable to reach the hospital, and some women have given birth at home, he said.

Khaled Hussein, head of Haditha's city council, feared that the military operations could prevent people from voting on the constitution. "The city now is paralyzed," he said.

According to the U.S. military, troops discovered numerous artillery rounds converted into bombs on the grounds of a Haditha mosque. Marines, along with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, found weapons caches that collectively held 40 mortar and artillery rounds, two complete mortar systems, small arms and thousands of rounds of ammunition in Haditha and the western town of Haqlaniyah.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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