Marine is killed in Iraq offensive

Troops target militants crossing border

November 07, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Husaybah, Iraq -- A Marine was killed in an insurgent ambush yesterday when his patrol raided a house in this tense border town, the first American casualty in a Marine-led sweep through the area aimed at stopping foreign jihadists from infiltrating Iraq through the Syrian border.

A group of Marines began to search the house, which appeared to be empty, and were met with a hail of gunfire, which killed one Marine and drove the others outside. The insurgent gunman was killed by other Marines as he tried to flee from the roof.

The sweep of the 3-square-mile town, involving 3,500 American and Iraqi soldiers, began Saturday and is the largest assault the Marines have conducted since their invasion of the restive city of Fallujah in February. It is the latest in a series aimed at halting the flow of foreign jihadists, including suicide bombers, who have entered Iraq from Syria.

According to the American military command, Husaybah is an important coordination center for this enterprise, and in the past several months it has been subjected to an intimidation campaign by fighters loyal to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida's Iraq operations.

Armed resistance was sporadic yesterday, sharply dropping in intensity from Saturday. When shooting erupted, however, it was fierce.

Insurgents armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers continued to resist the American-led forces by darting along the city's narrow dirt streets or firing from upper-story snipers' blinds. The Americans responded with torrents of automatic weapons fire, tank rounds and 500-pound aerial bombardments. Twice yesterday, a low-flying F-16 fighter jet strafed a suspected insurgent stronghold.

At least three Marines were wounded Sunday, though none seriously, and the sweep seemed to have caught insurgents off guard, Marine commanders said.

"I think we did surprise them by coming in the way we did and grabbing a foothold," said Capt. Conlon Carabine. The insurgents tested the Americans on the first day, he said, and then fled east.

Even though the firefights died down as the day wore on, the work remained tense. The Marines were particularly on edge about the possibility that the insurgents had rigged houses and streets with explosives and booby-traps. Numerous homemade bombs were discovered and safely detonated during the first two days of the operation.

The Marines have found most houses abandoned. Residents say a citywide exodus began in September during a violent feud between two local tribes. More recently, other residents decided to leave amid rumors of an American-led assault. About 450 residents have left since the beginning of the operation and are being provided with temporary lodging, officials said.

Hamid Ahmed Shahab el-Jomaily, 66, explained that he and his family - including his three wives, four sons and their families - had remained in Husaybah to protect their home against criminals.

"I have nice things here," he said after the Marines finished searching his home. "I'd rather die in my house than leave it."

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