U.S. forces step up operations across a wide swath of insurgent strongholds

Tuesday, October 12th 2004, 1:00 pm
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) U.S. forces stepped up operations Tuesday across a wide swath of the Sunni insurgent strongholds northwest of the capital, pounding targets in two cities from the air and supporting Iraqi troops in raids on mosques suspected of harboring insurgents.

The increased military activity coincided with the approach of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and appeared intended to avoid a repeat of the upsurge in attacks that took place last year.

U.S. warplanes struck twice in insurgent-held Fallujah, destroying a popular restaurant and a house, which the U.S. command said were used by members of Iraq's most feared terrorist organization. At least five people were killed and two wounded, the city hospital said.

More airstrikes were reported in Hit, where a hospital received two bodies. U.S. officials had no immediate comment.

At least 15 people were reported killed in an attack on an Iraqi National Guard outpost near the Syrian border. Residents claimed an American plane fired on the compound, but the U.S. Marines said insurgents staged the attack.

A 12:01 a.m. blast flattened the Haj Hussein restaurant in Fallujah as well as nearby shops, residents said. The restaurant was closed, but two night guards were killed, said Dr. Ahmed Thaer of Fallujah General Hospital.

The U.S. military command in Baghdad did not mention the restaurant but said the target was used as a meeting place for the Tawhid and Jihad terror network, led by Jordanian-born extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The second blast occurred at 4:02 a.m. and flattened a building in northeastern Fallujah that the military said was a known terrorist safe house. Intelligence sources confirmed that al-Zarqawi associates were using the building at the time of the strike, the military said.

At least three people were killed and two wounded in that blast, Thaer said.

Residents reported hearing more explosions Tuesday evening on the eastern side of the city.

Al-Zarqawi's network has claimed responsibility for numerous car bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of foreign hostages.

Tuesday's strikes were the first in four days. The Iraqi government has reported progress in negotiations to restore control over the city 40 miles west of Baghdad.

American warplanes and helicopters struck in two parts of Hit, killing two people and injuring five, the hospital said. Residents went to the town hall to demand local authorities negotiate a cease-fire.

The previous day, U.S. aircraft attacked a town mosque and set it on fire after insurgents hiding in the shrine opened fire on Marines, the U.S. military said. Sporadic clashes continued through the night, killing at least two Iraqis and wounding 15, according to Hit General Hospital.

The Iraqi National Guard outpost east of Qaim was attacked in the early hours of the morning. Residents said U.S. warplanes were in action over the area, but the U.S. Marines said there were no American operations there and insurgents staged the attack. Between 15 and 20 people were killed in the attack, according to Hamid Ahmed Ali, a city hospital official.

The Marines sent a team to the outpost to assess the situation and see whether any assistance was needed.

Also Tuesday, a Marine patrol took fire, but there were no American casualties, they said.

In nearby Ramadi, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. soldiers and Marines raided seven mosques in suspected of harboring terrorists, storing weapons, promoting violence and encouraging insurgent recruitment, the U.S. command said.

Sheikh Abdul-Aleim Saadi, the provincial leader of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, was detained at Mohammed Aref Mosque, his relatives and followers said.

Angry residents accused Americans of breaking down doors and violating the sanctity of city mosques.

``This cowboy behavior cannot be accepted,'' said cleric Abdullah Abu Omar of the Ramadi Mosque. ``The Americans seem to have lost their senses and have gone out of control.''

The 1st Marine Division said the raids followed a pattern of insurgent activity in and around Ramadi mosques in recent weeks. The city 70 miles west of Baghdad has seen fierce clashes recently between U.S. and insurgent forces.

``The 1st Marine Division respects the religious and cultural significance represented by mosques,'' it said in a statement. ``However, when insurgents violate the sanctity of the mosque by using the structure for military purposes, the site loses its protective status.''

American Marines and soldiers provided backup and protection for Iraqi security forces during the raids but did not enter the mosques, said Maj. Francis Piccoli, a Marine spokesman.

Both Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and White House officials have said they plan to use a mix of diplomacy and military force to try to wrest control of dozens of key cities from insurgents before planned January elections.

On Friday, a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the strategy of stepped-up military action had already been seen in recent clashes over Najaf and Samarra _ and ``you see it in offensive military actions that are taking place now in parts of the so-called Sunni triangle.''

Meanwhile, Shiite fighters in Baghdad's Sadr City unloaded cars full of machine guns and grenade launchers on the second day of a five-day, weapons-for-cash disarmament program. A lasting peace in the sprawling slum would allow U.S. and Iraqi forces to focus on the mounting Sunni insurgency in Fallujah, Ramadi and elsewhere.

Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr promised the government last weekend they would hand over medium and heavy weapons for cash in a deal considered an important step toward ending weeks of fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces. Iraqi police and National Guardsmen will then assume security responsibility for the district, which is home to more than 2 million people.

In return, the government has pledged to start releasing al-Sadr followers who have not committed crimes, suspend raids and rebuild the war-ravaged slum.

Rumsfeld, on a trip to Romania, said he was following the disarming of al-Sadr's followers.

``It is true, some elements are turning in some weapons,'' he said, adding that it was too early to know its significance. ``One hopes that over time, all of them'' will turn in their weapons, he said.