BAGHDAD, Iraq – Hundreds of American troops backed by gunships and warplanes swept into remote desert villages near the Syrian border Monday, hunting for followers of Iraq’s most-wanted terrorist and reportedly killing as many as 100 militants since the weekend operation began.
The U.S. military said some foreign fighters are believed among the insurgents killed in the first 48 hours of the assault, which began late Saturday in the border town of Qaim, about 200 miles from Baghdad. At least three Marines were killed in the region, it said.
U.S. officials described the area as a known smuggling route and a haven for foreign fighters involved in Iraq’s insurgency. The assault was the biggest U.S. offensive since the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah fell last fall.
Meanwhile, militants claimed in an Internet posting to have captured a Japanese man after ambushing an international British security company’s convoy in western Iraq. A spokesman for the company confirmed the employee is missing.
It wasn’t clear whether Sunday’s attack was related to the U.S. operation, which was about 80 miles away.
The offensive was being conducted by Regimental Combat Team 2, a joint force of about 1,000 Marines, sailors and soldiers commanded by the 2nd Marine Division, and expected to last several days in an area along the Euphrates River in the al-Jazirah Desert, said Capt. Jeffrey Pool, a Marine spokesman.
A senior military official in Washington said the offensive was targeting followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, who are believed operating in the remote region.
“This is an area which we believe has been pretty heavy with foreign insurgents from many different areas – Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Palestine,” said Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq. “That’s a fairly porous area of the border because of the terrain. It is very difficult.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, speaking on the sidelines of a summit between Arab and South American nations in Brasilia, Brazil, said that Iraqis are getting closer to capturing al-Zarqawi.
“He’s hiding himself,” said Zebari. “But there have been a number of successes against his organization. It’s just a matter of time.”
Acting on information from a captured al-Zarqawi associate, U.S. forces moved into Qaim overnight Saturday, killing six insurgents and detaining 54 suspects, the military said in a statement. Local residents were providing a “wealth of information” about the insurgency and foreign fighters in their area, Pool said.
On Sunday, troops moved into villages in and around Obeidi, a town about 185 miles west of Baghdad, and pushed north across the Euphrates, according to the Chicago Tribune, which has a reporter embedded with the combat team. “Our analysis is that there’s a foreign fighter flow from Syria,” Col. Stephen Davis, commander of Regimental Combat Team 2, told the Tribune. “The trademark of these folks is to be where we’re not. We haven’t got north of the river for a while.”
The newspaper quoted some Marines as saying residents of one riverside town turned off all their lights at night, apparently to warn neighboring villages of the approaching U.S. forces.
Frightened residents cowered in their homes Monday as bombs exploded and warplanes roared overhead.
“It’s truly horrific; there are snipers everywhere, rockets, no food, no electricity,” said Abu Omar al-Ani, a father of three reached by telephone in Qaim. “Today five rockets fell in front of my house. … We are mentally exhausted.”
The push comes amid a surge of militant attacks that have killed more than 310 people since April 28, when the new Iraqi government was announced.
At least four car bombs – including two suicide attacks – exploded in Baghdad, killing at least five people and wounding 15, police said.
The militant group Ansar al-Sunnah Army said it had taken Japanese citizen Akihito Saito, 44, as a hostage, posting a photocopy of his passport, including his picture, on the group’s Web site.
The group claimed its fighters ambushed a convoy of five foreign contract workers protected by a dozen Iraqi security men near Hit, 90 miles west of Baghdad. It claimed all were killed in the fight except for Saito, who it said was “severely injured.”
An ID card posted on the Internet identified Saito as a security manager for Hart GMSSCO, a Cyprus-based security firm. Hart CEO Simon Falkner said in London that there was an ambush with casualties Sunday night involving Hart personnel.
Later, a spokesman for Hart said Saito was among a number of the company’s workers who were unaccounted for after the attack.
“We can confirm that a number of Hart personnel are unaccounted for and one of them is Mr. Saito,” the spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Kyodo news agency in Japan said a senior Foreign Ministry official quoted Saito’s parents as saying the man in the picture looked like their son.
The family of another hostage, Australian national Douglas Wood, offered Monday to make a generous “charitable donation” to the people of Iraq to secure his freedom. Australia’s top Muslim cleric was traveling to Baghdad to try to negotiate his release.
Militants who kidnapped the 63-year-old California resident released a video Friday demanding that Austr-alia start pulling its troops out of Iraq within 72 hours. The deadline passed Monday with no word of his fate.
Iraq’s new Shiite Arab premier had hoped to dent support for the escalating insurgency by including members of the disaffected Sunni Arab minority in his new government.
Five new Cabinet members were sworn in Monday, four of them Sunnis. But a Sunni selected to be human rights minister turned down the job Sunday on the grounds of tokenism.