Border town under siege

American-Iraqi offensive targets foreign fighters


HUSAYBAH, Iraq -- Thousands of American and Iraqi troops laid siege yesterday to this town near the Syrian border in one of the largest military assaults since American-led forces stormed the guerrilla stronghold of Fallujah last year, Marine Corps officials said.

The sweep, aimed at shutting down the flow of foreign fighters along the Euphrates River, began early yesterday as 2,500 American troops and 1,000 Iraqi soldiers, all led by the Marines, cordoned off roads around Husaybah before rolling into town in armored vehicles and marching in on foot.

Insurgents armed with Kalashnikovs opened fire down alleyways and from windows. Fighter jets streaked overhead, dropping 500-pound bombs.

Explosions resounded throughout the day as the invading troops advanced house by house, searching each one.

By nightfall, the American-led forces had taken several blocks in the town's western half and still had more than a mile to go before reaching the eastern edge. At least two Americans had been injured in combat. Marines began making camp in seized houses, and sporadic gunfire could be heard in the streets.

American commanders say Husaybah has become a bastion for cells of al-Qaida in Iraq, the group led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that claims credit for many of the deadliest suicide bombings of the war.

Husaybah is one of the first and most vital stops for foreign fighters who enter Iraq through a series of desert towns along the Euphrates River corridor, the commanders say.

The Marines responsible for securing that vast desert region in Anbar Province have conducted about a dozen operations along the corridor since spring, with mixed success.

Yesterday's offensive was the most ambitious, partly because the American military appears intent on minimizing any chance that insurgents could disrupt the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, the final stage in the process of establishing a full-term sovereign government.

"It's a cesspool; it's time for this area to get cleaned up," Col. Stephen Davis, of the 2nd Marine Division, said of Husaybah. "Foreign fighters are the most virulent threat."

The operation is also a crucial test for the Iraqi security forces. This is the first time that multiple battalions of Iraqi soldiers have been deployed in combat, though they are still backed by the Americans, said Capt. Jeffrey Pool, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Division.

In recent months, American officers have been saying it will be years before the Iraqi army is able to operate on its own. In September, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, told the U.S. Senate that only one Iraqi battalion at that time was able to fight alone. President Bush has said a significant pullout of the 160,000 American troops here will not take place until the Iraqis are capable of providing some security for their own country.

American commanders say foreign fighters make up a small part of the insurgency but are instrumental in some of the most devastating attacks, particularly the ones involving deadly suicide car bombs that often kill dozens of Iraqis.

The Bush administration has increasingly expressed frustration at what it calls the inability of the Syrian government to stem the flow of fighters from the border, though the Syrians say the border is too long and porous to control. While Marines have been carrying out their offensives along the Euphrates, elite commando units have been deployed to other areas near Syria.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for the American command, said at a recent news conference that "the majority" of foreign fighters in Iraq were coming across from Syria. American operations in Anbar, he added, are intended to break up the transit routes for jihadists and munitions, and to capture or kill the leaders of the various al-Qaida cells.

"We're convinced that decimating their leadership has a significant effect on their operations," the general said.

Anbar Province, which is dominated by Sunni Arabs, has proved to be the most intractable swath of Iraq. Violence throughout the region, and hatred of both the Americans and the Shiite-led Iraqi government, dampened turnout there during a referendum last month on the nation's new constitution.

The American military said yesterday that a Marine was killed Friday after his vehicle hit a mine near the town of Habbaniya.

Elsewhere in Iraq, near the town of Tallil, an American serviceman was killed and three were injured in a vehicle accident, the military said.

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